It's been a long time since the Beach Boys sang about Chevrolet's, since the free-wheeling image of big-finned domestic automobiles fit perfectly with the carefree, larger-than-life-style embodied by California, and the combination resonated with American culture at large.
But the Detroit Three never let go of the dream of re-establishing themselves in the California market. And now, General Motors and Ford sense that they might be latching on to long-term success in America's most important-and the world's most beguiling-new-car market; and even Chrysler is talking about renewed hope there.
The bellwether state has emerged as a top destination for some of the newest and most important models in all automakers' product portfolios these days, and domestic marketers are trying to make sure that the Golden State indeed proves golden for them in the years to come.
"We've been looking for that sweet spot in California for a long time," said Lew Echlin, Ford's marketing manager for global cars and crossovers. "As with anything, it has taken a great deal of perseverance and consistency in California. We've had a cohesive California strategy that's gone back for years ... But it's taken us a long time to get in perfect harmony with the California market. We've found a sweet spot that we had found [only] in spurts before, but now we've consistently hammered on it."
Ford's overall market share in California rose to about 12 percent last year compared with 10 percent in 2008, according to the company, thanks largely to the popularity of its newer small cars, the Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta . A restyled 2013 Ford Fusion should help as well.
Similarly, General Motors sees new hope in its rising results in California. Its market share there last year was about 12 percent compared with a national market share that pushed 20 percent. And like Ford, GM has been predicating its turnaround there largely on small cars-in this case, great acceptance for its new Chevrolet Cruze compact.
"With the launch of the Cruze, we've gone from zero to hero in California pretty quickly," said Alan Batey, vice president of the Chevrolet division. The launch of the new Chevrolet Sonic subcompact recently, with a huge marketing push toward young consumers, also is expected to help significantly in California.
And the cutting-edge Chevrolet Volt extended-range hybrid has given GM a new-age panache in California, he said. Now that Volt ownership qualifies drivers for access to faster-moving carpooling lanes on Golden State highways, there's another practical reason for Californians to consider the Volt.
Chrysler also sees some very new reasons to hope that it can turn around its long-term struggles in California. Chrysler sales in California ticked up last year.
Now the brand plans to start its California revival efforts at the dealership level, by picking up a handful of properties and establishing new dealerships or re-establishing outlets in metro areas.
"What's been different and new is the focus and intensity we have put on getting more solid representation in California," said Peter Grady, Chrysler's vice president of network development.
These Detroit Three executives are talking up their California hopes because they realize the importance of the California market. In sheer numbers, California and its new-vehicle trade dwarf all other states. The state accounted for 10 percent, or $57 billion, of overall U.S. vehicle sales through dealerships in 2010, according to the National Auto Dealers Association. This compares with 8 percent for Texas, 7 percent for Florida, and 6 percent for New York.
"Though the California market has been down lately more than the rest of the country," Grady said, it ended up 2011 still "being the largest car market in the country. "We can't go without it." Said Batey: "For Chevrolet to be strong and take effective leadership, we need to do better in the biggest market in the country. There's no rocket science to that; we must have vehicles that are relevant to consumers in that market."