High gas prices bring mixed response

Most in Md. would switch to autos with better mileage, poll finds

Yet few favor steps to economize

October 31, 2004|By Paul Adams and Bob Erle | Paul Adams and Bob Erle,SUN STAFF

Marylanders say they're very concerned about the high price of gasoline. So concerned, in fact, that in a new statewide poll for The Sun, 62 percent of those surveyed said they will think twice about the size and gas mileage of the next car they buy.

But the same poll shows that when it comes to taking simple gas-saving steps like using public transportation, cutting down on shopping trips or vacationing closer to home, an even larger percentage are going about their business as usual.

And the professed concern about gas mileage in the poll of 602 registered voters in Maryland flies in the face of national sales data and countless surveys of new-car buyers. Those show that while buyers may grouse about gas prices, when it comes time to buy they still care more about cup holders and exterior color than about fuel economy.

Similarly, things like visibility, how fast a car can go, whether it's fun to drive or has a quiet engine all influence buying decisions more than fuel economy, even with gas at $2 a gallon, according to Strategic Vision, a San Diego market research firm that surveys car buyers nationwide.

"So people say, `Oh, it's a big deal and woe is me,' " said Jim Hossack, vice president of AutoPacific Inc., a Tustin, Calif., automotive research and consulting firm. "But if you did another survey and asked people, `What are you doing about it?' -- in many cases the answer is, `I'm not doing anything about it.'"

Industry experts say the statewide survey, conducted for The Sun by the Washington office of Ipsos-Public Affairs, is symbolic of a disconnect between public outrage over high gas prices and actual consumer behavior.

In other words, the love for big sedans and four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles is still stronger than indignation at the pump.

Despite soaring gas prices, SUV sales nationally have risen 5.3 percent in the first nine months of this year, compared with the first nine months of last year.

Sales of large SUVs, which include the Chevrolet Suburban and Nissan Armada, are about on par with last year's levels. In September, the most recent month for which statistics are available, sales were up 12.7 percent compared with a year ago, according to data provided by Automotive News, a trade publication that compiles industry statistics.

Dependability

Floyd Dean of Baltimore is typical of many car buyers. He took gas mileage into consideration when he recently bought a new car, but his choice of a new Honda Accord was based more on the vehicle's dependability than its mileage rating.

"My trip to work is real short," he said.

Car dealers agree that gas prices haven't been a key driver of sales.

"Gas would have to go up extremely high for them [SUVs] to go away," said Jim Kelly, a sales consultant for Anderson Honda in Baltimore.

Despite all the hype over the rising popularity of fuel-efficient hybrid cars, the dealership still reports strong SUV sales and has seen only a slight increase in interest in the gas-electric Civic Hybrid.

"I think right now it's the same as always," he said of hybrid car sales. "Gas prices will have to stay up a little longer for it to sink in with people."

Toyota Motor Co. says the same is true for its redesigned Prius, a gas-electric hybrid that has been hard to find in showrooms because of its popularity.

Backlog of orders

The manufacturer has a four- to six-month backlog of orders for the vehicle and plans to double production next year to meet demand.

But don't credit high fuel costs for the car's popularity, says Toyota's Bill Reinert, who tracks customer preferences for the Prius as national manager of the car maker's advanced technology group.

High interest in the hybrid car surfaced before gas prices started their climb last spring, he said. People buying the Prius are more likely attracted to the car's unique design and gee-whiz technology than its high-mileage credentials.

"There is a big difference in what customers say in surveys compared with how they behave in the showroom," he said. In truth, he said, consumers are spending less of their household income on fuel today than in previous years.

"I don't think [the price of gas] is causing great concern among consumers right now."

Toyota says it has a 34.3-day supply of passenger cars on its lots, or almost exactly the same as its inventory of SUVs. In other words, the two are selling at about the same rate, a company spokeswoman said.

More affluent buyers

Paul Ballew, executive director of market and industry analysis for General Motors, said truck and SUV buyers tend to be more affluent and are less affected by rising gas prices. When prices are high, buyers tend to shop more for the best gas mileage among light trucks, but they still buy a truck, he said.

That was true for Julia Phillips and James O'Reilly of White Hall, who recently bought a Honda Element for their decorative painting business. They needed an SUV to haul equipment, but shopped for one that was smaller and more fuel-efficient because of rising fuel costs.

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