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Published: Thursday, 5/15/2008

Sales of fuel-friendly cars, hybrids rev up along with rising gas prices

BY TED FACKLER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Stan Rubini helps keep down the cost of driving with his Smartfortwo, an import that delivers an estimated 32 miles per gallon. Other fuel-efficient models such as the Toyota Prius, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, and Chevrolet Aveo are rising in popularity as gasoline hovers at just under $4 a gallon. A drawback, Mr. Rubini says: 'People asking me questions' about the car. Stan Rubini helps keep down the cost of driving with his Smartfortwo, an import that delivers an estimated 32 miles per gallon. Other fuel-efficient models such as the Toyota Prius, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, and Chevrolet Aveo are rising in popularity as gasoline hovers at just under $4 a gallon. A drawback, Mr. Rubini says: 'People asking me questions' about the car.
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Gasoline near $4 a gallon has drivers scared straight into dealerships asking for higher fuel-efficient cars and hybrids.

Local dealerships said yesterday that interest in cars with high miles-per-gallon has skyrocketed with every gas hike recently. Plus, the sale of fuel-efficient cars has exploded locally as well as nationally, and it has been difficult keeping such vehicles on the lot for sales.

"The No. 1 priority for most people coming in off the street is fuel economy," said Matt Bunkelman, sales manager at Gerweck Nissan in Monroe.

Its Versa small car gets 32 miles per gallon and is sought after, with sales up 24 percent nationally in the first four months this year compared to a year ago. The dealership stocked up on fuel-efficient cars in January and now its inventory is double the standard number at 20 vehicles.

The most popular fuel-efficient vehicle in the United States is the Toyota Prius. In Toledo, Jim White Toyota sales manager Don Ansted has trouble keeping them in stock.

"We beg, plead, cajole, and do anything we can to get extra product," he said. The vehicle, which gets 46 miles per gallon and costs $24,000, has a waiting list of 20 people at the dealership. Each waits six to eight weeks.

The vehicle, which uses a combination of gas and electric to operate, thus reducing gas usage, had a sales uptick of 21 percent in the first four months of this year to 64,664 units compared to the same period a year ago. Its price jumped about $900 in the past year and another $400 this month.

The Toledo dealership had a 126 percent jump in sales during the first three months of this year compared to a year ago, selling 43 this year. Also popular at the store are the Camry Hybrid, which gets 34 miles per gallon, and the Yaris, at 37 miles per gallon.

Toledoan Stan Rubini chose to buy the fuel-efficient Smart- fortwo, a new foreign model on the market. Since January, 6,159 of the eight-foot-long cars have been sold in the United States; 30,000 people are on the waiting list. The closest dealership is in Detroit.

Mr. Rubini estimates the $11,590 vehicle gets 32 miles per gallon.

"I get stopped every time I get in and out of the car, people asking me questions," he said. "That's the one thing I like least."

Automotive analysts said the increased demand in higher-mileage cars is common as gas prices surge.

"In April, we reached a tipping point when gas was $3.60 a gallon," explained Eric Merkle, an analyst with the automotive consulting firm IRN Inc., in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"In April, passenger cars for the first time represented 54 percent in total sales, where trucks fell to 46 percent. Usually you can reverse that. That's all because of gas prices."

If gas prices fall, people likely will go back to buying large, less-fuel-efficient vehicles, he said.

Brondes Ford in Toledo has strong interest in its fuel-efficient models. It sold two units of its Ford Escape Hybrid since January, and would sell more but has none in stock, sales manager Rob Whitner said.

"All the dealers are asking for them, but the supply can't meet the demand," he said. Some dealers have been asking $5,000 over normal sticker prices because of the demand, he added.

The Ford Focus is a fast seller, not a hybrid but grabbing 34 miles per gallon on average.

But sales of sport utility vehicles continue to fall locally.

Mr. Bunkleman at Gerweck Nissan estimated that 90 percent of his trade-ins involve SUVs.

The ratio at Dave White Chevrolet in Sylvania is about the same, sales manager Kim Taylor said. In April, the dealership sold three cars for every truck.

"Generally, we've sold more trucks than cars but a lot of people are trading out of gas hogs," she said. Popular, she said, are its Aveo small car, with 34 miles per gallon, and the Cobalt, with 32 miles per gallon.

Sales of the Honda Fit and Civic, each with 31 miles per gallon, and the Civic Hybrid, at 43 miles per gallon, are up 47 percent in the first quarter this year from the same period a year ago at Jim White Honda in Maumee.

The hybrid is out of stock, but the dealership is trying to get more. Its base price is $23,235. Sales of the Fit are up 67 percent nationally so far this year compared to a year ago, and sales of the Civic hybrid nationally are up 23 percent so far this year compared to a year ago.

Contact Ted Fackler at:

tfackler@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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