U.S. North to South 2015: Juneau, Alaska

Matt Gasnier
by Matt Gasnier

After Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, we fly south to Alaska’s capital city, Juneau.

Juneau is America’s only state capital that cannot be reached by car — only boat or plane — as its road network does not connect it to any other towns. It is bound to stay that way as half its residents and its mayor opposed a plan to build a road that would. But even though you can’t drive anywhere, Juneau has a very dynamic car park.

First, a little more trivia on Juneau, which owes its existence to Alaska’s first major gold strike in 1880 and was the first town to be founded after Alaska’s purchase from the Russians in 1867. The Alaskan capital was originally Sitka on the Pacific Ocean coast, but after the whaling and fur trade declined and reduced Sitka’s importance, it was moved to Juneau in 1906 and remains so until today, despite many challenges to move it again as I described in the previous episode of this series.

Flying from Anchorage to Juneau is like flying above an altogether different planet. The Bering Glacier, Kluane National Park, Tatshenshini Alsek Park (Canada) and Glacier Bay National Park unfold before your wide open eyes. You’ll see glaciers stretching for over 100 miles before breaking directly onto the Pacific Ocean as tiny-looking icebergs while turquoise waters meander between snow-covered peaks towering the clouds. Landing in Juneau is also an interesting experience, as the landing strip has a parallel waterway to allow take-off and landing of the multitude of float planes present in town.

Almost a million cruise-ship passengers unload onto Juneau each year, and the historic downtown area all but closes when ships sail away. There are a handful of new car dealerships in Juneau, and they naturally have a drastic impact on the car landscape in town. The most striking element of the Juneau car park is the outstanding domination of Subaru. Roughly one in every five vehicles in circulation in the Alaskan capital is a Subaru, which has to be a world record. Not even at home in Japan can Subaru boast such ratios, which were calculated on a representative sample of 400 vehicles in town.

Subaru almost certainly does not command as much as 20 percent of the Juneau new light vehicle market. However, it looks like every owner has been clinging to their Subaru since the first ones hit the streets in the ’80s, resulting in a higher car park ratio. All generations of Forester, Outback, Legacy and Impreza are happily streaming the streets of Juneau.

Leo from Mendenhall Auto Centre confirmed Subaru is the best-selling brand in town, with the Forester the best-seller by a very large margin. This particular dealership sells roughly five Foresters for every Outback that leaves their lot. Let’s keep in mind Mendenhall Auto Centre is also the official Juneau dealer for Chevrolet, GMC, Dodge, Ram, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda, but still sells more Subarus than any other brand. Subarus are particularly popular here due to their high ground clearance, safety record, six year warranty and fuel economy — a perfect mix of city driving practicality and countryside roads ability, even though the lonely roads around Juneau are all paved.

SUVs do dominate in town and outsell the pickups that account for only 25 percent of traffic. We will see this trend reverse as we go further south and the towns get much smaller. The Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are perennial favourites, but Subarus hold their own against the newest entries. Mendenhall Auto Centre cites a lady customer who test drove both the Honda HR-V and Subaru XV Crosstrek, choosing to purchase the latter as a more able four-wheel drive vehicle.

Typically, Subaru owners in Juneau trade in their current two- to five-year-old car for a new one at the dealership. All Subaru models are popular in Juneau, including the XV Crosstrek, Outback and even the Impreza hatchback (I spotted many in town whereas the Impreza is typically rare in the U.S. landscape). The proof is in the pudding: Mendenhall Auto Centre in Juneau had – one – new Impreza left on their lot when I visited. All others had been snapped up already.

Logically, Leo also cited the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel as a favourite in town, and that’s in line with the State sales charts placing the Ram Pickup in the overall pole position. The other main dealer in town is Jeep, and there is indeed a definite skew towards more Jeeps in Juneau than in the previous (and next) towns I visited in Alaska. Other notable successes here include the Honda Element and Dodge Durango. Of course, the Ford F-Series and Chevrolet Silverado fill the streets as usual, and non-Subaru passenger cars are dominated by the Toyota Corolla and Yaris.

A special mention to GM’s defunct brand Saturn, showing a solid heritage in Juneau with a few SL models spotted in town.

Leaving Juneau by ferry (and not cruise-ship or plane) is the trickiest, as the town’s ferry terminal is out of reach Juneau’s sadistic bus network stops at the airport and doesn’t go all the way to the ferry terminal in Auke Bay, past the Mendenhall Glacier. Even in Juneau, like elsewhere in the U.S., you’re supposed to have a car. I can’t wait to climb onto my Ram 2500 in Seattle then!

Next we hit Petersburg, further south but still in Alaska.

Matt Gasnier is based in Sydney, Australia. He runs a website dedicated to car sales statistics, trends and analysis called BestSellingCarsBlog. The website features sales data for 190 countries worldwide including 80 countries updated monthly.

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  • Dig Dig on Oct 20, 2015

    OK. I am going to chime in here as a current resident of the fine town of Juneau. Mr. Gasnier leaves a couple of things out and it is not the Subaru thing where he is right on the money. People do have trucks here if for no other reason than to launch ones' boat as a boat is the proper form of transportation here. A great thing about trucks is I have 2014 Tundra that I have purchased from the aforementioned Mendenhall auto dealer some 1.5 years ago and it has like all of 10k miles on it. It is the DD. We have 300 miles of road after all. Took it on the ferry over to Chichigof Is. a couple of times as well. I think they have about the same road mileage but no pavement. I come from Montana. That is like no miles/km on a rig in that amount of time. Little bit of maintenance and the Tundra should get me to retirement (back in Montana). There is also quite the little fleet of garage queen muscle cars here in various vintages. Co-worker has a mint 1968 Pontiac GTO that is quite the hit on a sunny summer day. Another has around 2012 Mustang Shelby GT.

  • Jnu Res. Jnu Res. on Oct 24, 2015

    dig, know how to get service on a Mazda in Juneau? I'm thinking about getting one of their tiny SUV's. I've heard elsewhere that the Ford dealership has worked with Mazda owners. I'm a 57 year resident of Alaska--the vast majority of those years being in Juneau.. My old Toyota Corolla has been rusting in the rain for decades..but I love it here. Felix H.-- I think I've seen Northern Lights here starting in September, but since Juneau is often cloudy, we miss many events in the night sky. Fairbanks is a great place to see the Northern Lights, and they are often more brilliant there. My earliest memory (from 2 yrs. old) is looking out the back door at the Northern Lights. Even with global warming, it can get a tad cold there though...

  • Probert A few mega packs would probably have served as decent backup.
  • Lou_BC Lead sleds. Now-a-days GM would just use Bondo.
  • Jrhurren This is a great series. Thanks Corey
  • Tane94 Not as stylish as the Soul which it is replacing but a practical shape and bonus points for EV only.
  • Ronin What is the magical white swan event in the foreseeable future that will suddenly reverse the trend?Success tends to follow success, and likewise failure. The perception, other than among true believers, is that e-cars are a lost cause. Neither government fiat, nor government bribery, nor even the promise of superior virtue among one's peers have been enough to push past the early adapter curve. Either the bust-out is right now for e-cars, or it doesn't happen. Marketing 101.Even subtle language-manipulation, such as deeming those possessing common sense as suffering from some sort of vague anxiety (eg, "range anxiety") has not been enough to induce people to care.Twenty years from now funny AI-generated comedians will make fun of the '20s, and their obsession with theose silly half-forgotten EVs. They will point out that, yes, EVs actually ran on electricity generated by such organic fuels as coal and natural gas after all, and then they will perform synthesized laughter at us.