What do you drive?
It’s not the first question Washingtonians typically ask one another. (This isn’t LA.) Yet that doesn’t mean we don’t buy cars or don’t have particular preferences. More than 250,000 new vehicles were registered in Washington in 2014, making the area the sixth-largest car market in the country, according to the industry consulting firm IHS Automotive.
The big winners? Toyota and Honda. These Japanese brands do good business everywhere, but they’re particularly well loved in Washington—accounting for the area’s six most popular cars. What residents in and around America’s capital don’t love nearly as much are American brands. The most popular vehicle in the US, the Ford F-150, ranks a humble seventh here. “Washington is much stronger for Asian brands than the middle part of the country,” says IHS analyst Tom Libby. (He’s not judging your patriotism—he drives a European-built Audi.)
The F-150 is also the only pickup to crack the top ten, making Washington a car island in a truck-crazy country. (Nationally, the three bestselling vehicles are trucks—Ford’s F Series, the Chevy Silverado, and the Ram line.)
That’s partially because Washingtonians have a green streak. We are, for instance, the fifth-largest market for the Toyota Prius hybrid. Tesla, the electric-car maker, opened a showroom in DC, on K Street near Mount Vernon Square. Still, Libby notes that Washingtonians don’t buy as many hybrids as residents of West Coast cities do. A simpler explanation for why we don’t favor lower-miles-per-gallon pickups: Trucks are big, and parking spaces here are small.
As you might expect of a city surrounded by six of the richest counties in the country, there’s a healthy appetite for premium cars. Audi, Mercedes, and BMW (the local luxury leader) do brisk business here. The largest dealer in the US for Acura—Honda’s luxury brand—is Pohanka Acura in Chantilly.
Although Washingtonians like nice cars, there is at the same time a reluctance to drive ones that might appear too nice. Cruise through other cities with high concentrations of wealth, such as Los Angeles, Miami, and Toronto, and you’re bound to see more exotic vehicles.
“You won’t see a Rolls-Royce Phantom around here,” says Doni Moskowitz, who manages a repair shop in Wheaton. He says he thinks twice about driving certain exotics here because of the “weird looks” they draw.
“You do see some people ‘slumming it,’ for a variety of reasons,” agrees Wade Newton, director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies on behalf of 12 car companies.
One of those reasons is politics. “Most Congress members are very sensitive about not wanting to be very colorful about owning luxury cars,” says Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan. Lawmakers who bring cars to the capital—many rely on taxis and Uber—look for something that reflects their views or their constituency. Dingell drives a Michigan-built Cadillac ATS, which, she makes sure to note, she leased with her own money. “Members are sensitive to how it gets paid for.”
This aversion to fancy cars may be changing. “I’ve seen DC and the surrounding areas bloom,” says Michael Meholick, a native Washingtonian and a marketing specialist at Exclusive Automotive Group in Vienna. The dealership opened three years ago selling Aston Martins and has recently added Bentley and McLaren to its portfolio. Meholick concedes, “We’re not a Miami, not an LA,” but suggests that just as we’re seeing more high-rises and nightlife than 15 to 20 years ago, we may soon be seeing more exotic cars. For now, he’s sticking with his Mitsubishi Montero.
That’s not the only way Washington’s car market is changing. The blossoming of real estate and businesses around Metro stops, along with a cornucopia of alternative transportation choices—Metro, Zipcar, Capital Bikeshare, Uber, Circulator—has made Washington one of the country’s easiest areas to traverse without owning a car. “There are more choices than we had even ten years ago,” says John Thomas, a division director at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities. This revolution has included the suburbs, an aspect in which, Thomas says, “DC is a leader.” He often leaves his Hyundai at home in Bethesda and bikes to work along the Capital Crescent Trail.
Add in the fact that this is one of the most frustrating places to drive in the nation—Washington ranked 198 out of 200 US cities in a 2014 report by Allstate insurance about safe drivers—and it’s no wonder people are driving less. Even Newton of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has recently gone from two cars to one (what kind, he prefers not to say) and admits he frequently walks to work from his home in Logan Circle.
Still, don’t expect to see an end to Beltway traffic anytime soon. “I think there continues to be a downward trend in car ownership, but since we are growing in population, there may well be more cars,” says Sam Zimbabwe, associate director for the Policy, Planning & Sustainability Administration at DC’s Department of Transportation. Even the preference for smaller cars isn’t set in stone, because, as Zimbabwe notes, there are more kids in the city than there used to be, “which probably leads to a few more minivans out there.” That said, he and his wife and two children get by with a little Ford Focus hatchback that they’ve driven fewer than 30,000 miles in four years.
In other words, Washington is probably going to remain, in its own way, a car-centric city, even if Washingtonians aren’t in the habit of talking about it.
David Zenlea, a senior editor at Automobile magazine, drives a Mazda Miata.
This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.