For better or for worse, sport utility vehicle owners are not ready to trade in their tanks for more fuel-efficient models, although gas prices continue to climb, local automobile dealers say.
"So far, we have not seen much of a change in buying patterns," said Bobby Culpepper, owner of Culpepper Motor Co. in Harlem. "Most people are more conscious of it, and they talk about it, but they feel like gas prices are pretty close to their peak. And although it costs them a little more, their family needs and the size of the vehicle play an important part in their willingness to maintain that large of a vehicle. Everyone just can't get along with a smaller vehicle that gets better gas mileage."
Scott Herring bought a 2000 Mitsubishi Montero Sport in January. He said he pays about $20 for a tank of gas and fills it about every 10 days.
"I expected when I got the vehicle that I would be paying more for gas than my wife's Saturn," he said. "Gas is a little more expensive, of course, but it really hasn't affected me. I still love my truck. Any long road trips that we make, though, we'll take the Saturn because it's easier on the wallet."
Richmond County statistics for the past three years show Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge pickups of all types are the most popular vehicles, said Roger Tomlin, director of motor vehicles for the tax commissioner's office. The Ford Explorer, the Ford F-150 and the Jeep Cherokee also are among the top-ranked vehicles. The only passenger car rising to the top is the small Nissan Sentra.
"It clearly appears pickups and SUVs are more popular than ever," Mr. Tomlin said. "We certainly are registering more of them than conventional vehicles."
Since 1990, the 20 most registered vehicles in Columbia County have been either trucks or sport utility vehicles, said Kay Allen, Columbia County tax commissioner.
In that 10-year span, the No. 1 vehicle registered was a 1996 Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle, with the Ford F-150 pickup topping out for last year alone, with 2,087 tag decal registrations.
If the Ford Explorer isn't big enough for you, there's the Expedition and the even larger Excursion, with its three-quarter-ton chassis and 44-gallon fuel tank. That's a $61.60 fill-up when fuel costs $1.40 a gallon. Mr. Culpepper said SUV owners will average 16 to 20 miles per gallon, depending on driving conditions.
"People are in love with their SUVs," Mr. Culpepper said. "They ride and they handle so well. It's the type of vehicle you can use off-road or as a station wagon. They're pretty, stylish, and they look good going to church or for any type family use. You can pack a lot of kids and a lot of junk in them.
"Young adults who are starting a family usually go to that because they find out they have to carry a playpen and all the things that go with a baby. The world constantly changes, and we like our conveniences -- and rightfully so. Why leave them at home?"
Of the 20 top-selling vehicles in the United States through February, 11 were trucks. Only one car shows up in the top five.
When gas and money flow freely, there seems to be no limit to the size or weight of the cars we drive. But history shows that when times are tight and gas is scarce, Americans will quickly abandon their big cars for more efficient gas-sipping vehicles. The small-car frenzy that dealers saw in the 1970s when gas was scarce simply hasn't happened, Mr. Culpepper said.
Though buying trends may be slow to change, people are starting to take notice and talk about gas mileage when buying a new automobile, said Greg Hodges, owner of Acura and Kia of Augusta, Augusta Mitsubishi, Saturn of Augusta, Honda Cars of Aiken and Saturn of Savannah.
"People are starting to ask what kind of fuel efficiency a car gets, and we're starting to promote that more as well," Mr. Hodges said. "But I don't notice anyone trading in any big SUVs as a result of it."
Honda's new Insight went on sale in December and is the first gasoline-electric hybrid car to be sold in the United States. It received the highest mileage ratings ever from the Environmental Protection Agency, 61 mpg in the city and 70 mpg highway. The Insight, a two-seat vehicle -- sells for about $19,000.
"When you see these big manufacturers coming out with a car like this, they're real long-range planners and they understand the dependency that we all have to OPEC and the effect that the fuel nations have on the economy of the world," Mr. Hodges said.
Last week, Iran reversed course and agreed to increase oil production in line with the other members of OPEC -- the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Crude oil prices are expected to decline, though not quickly nor greatly.
Janice Knox, a Realtor with Blanchard & Calhoun, said she is growing weary of paying $30 a week to fill her leased 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Instead of putting small amounts of gas into the tank, she regularly fills it now, fearing what future price increases may bring. Given the choice, however, she said she would gladly move to a smaller car.
"I'd get into a Honda tomorrow if I could, because when I had my old one, I got 30 miles to the gallon," she said.
With a robust economy, owners of larger vehicles are willing to pay the price of luxury. Higher gas prices haven't slowed down sales of the Lincoln Navigator SUV one bit, said Henry Evans, sales manager at Augusta Lincoln Mercury.
"Most people who are buying Lincoln products, gas mileage doesn't even enter their minds," said Mr. Evans, who sells about five to 10 Navigators a month. "Most of the people who own and drive larger vehicles have the money to afford the gas. They know it's going to go up, and they know it's going to go down, too, so they don't worry about it that much."
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.
Richmond County vehicle registration for 1996-99:
Ford Explorer: 2,197
Ford F-150: 2,186
Nissan Sentra: 1,364
Jeep Cherokee: 1,124
Chevrolet pickups (all models): 8,793
Ford pickups (all models): 8,790
Dodge pickups (all models): 2,550