Originally created 03/15/03

Smaller, fuel-efficient cars gain in sales, dealers say



Full-size sport utility vehicles might be the Goliaths of the road, but some Augusta car dealers say a David - a smaller, more fuel efficient vehicle - is now gaining ground in the battle of sales.

"We are beginning to see an increase in the attempt to trade in full-size trucks and SUVs," said Scott Wade, the general manager of Honda Cars of Aiken. "People are looking at trading them in, but it's a battle for them. They want that image car, but yet logic is starting to come into play."

Dealers said a possible war with Iraq is the sling, delivering the powerful punch of higher gas prices and leading motorists to consider smaller, midsized SUVs or cars.

On Friday, Hazel Mincey didn't let higher gas prices stop her purchase of a 2003 Ford Expedition from Bobby Jones Ford.

She said she'll use her SUV to take trips with her grandchildren, but if gas prices continue rising, "I'll have to limit my driving," she said.

Brian Stewart, a sales manager at Bobby Jones, said he hasn't seen any SUV trade-ins at his business, but "it has kind of declined as far as the sales of them."

The same is true at Bob Richards Chevrolet in Augusta.

"Traffic is a little bit slow right now just in anticipation of what's going to happen, more so with the war," said Mark Boyd, the general sales manager for Bob Richards.

At Augusta Dodge, Ernie Muller said some motorists have traded in larger SUVs, such as the Suburban, for smaller versions, such as the Durango.

Paul Taylor, the chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said the largest growth sector of vehicles is currently in small-sized SUVs.

January and February sales of truck-based SUVs, which are typically V8s and larger than midsized SUVs, have decreased 14.7 percent nationwide from a year ago, he said. Small car-based SUV sales have increased by 27.2 percent.

Ricky Stokes, the general manager for Gerald Jones Honda, said people have been opting for cars at his business.

"I had a customer yesterday that traded in an F-150 pickup truck for a two-seater convertible sports car," he said. "So, it's happening."

But not all cars touted as fuel efficient have caught on. Take hybrid cars from Honda and Toyota that operate on a combination of gas and electric power and get 45 miles per gallon.

"We sell four or five a month," Mr. Stokes said. "It's just a little hard for people to understand how it works and how beneficial it is to them."

FLUCTUATING PRICES

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Augusta reached an all-time high of $1.549 Friday, marking the third straight day of record fuel prices.

GRADE/FRIDAY/THURSDAY/MONTH AGO/YEAR AGO

Regular/$1.549/$1.534/$1.516/$1.110

Premium/$1.739/$1.722/$1.702/$1.257

Diesel/$1.694/$1.693/$1.655/$1.134

Source: AAA Auto Club South

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.