Local car dealers say more people turning to fuel-efficient models

Monday, March 3, 2008
Christina Elias looks at the sticker on a BMW on Friday at Cape Girardeau Honda with Emily Fidler as they searched for a fuel-efficient car for Tammy Elias. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

In the 1970s, rising fuel prices forced automakers to dramatically reduce the size of their cars, while motorists driving what teenagers then called "land yachts" traded gas-guzzling behemoths for vehicles that cost less to operate.

Today, as gas prices climb again to record levels, area car dealers say that those sport utility vehicles that looked so cool just a few years ago are losing value fast while dealers have trouble keeping a good selection of smaller, more fuel efficient models on their lots.

Last year was a mixed year for area dealers. While the owners of some lots selling new models of U.S.-branded cars saw sales drop for the second year in a row, the operators of new car dealerships with foreign brands that are perceived to be stingier with a gallon of gas did fairly well.

Overall, the new car dealers in the county reported selling 5,941 vehicles in 2007, up from 5,527 in 2006. The 2005 sales figures of 6,641 vehicles included major fleet sales at Auffenberg Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge, which made the numbers artificially high.

The figures, from dealer reports to the Missouri Department of Revenue, don't break down sales by type, so sales of vehicles such as hybrid cars and trucks are hard to gauge. Dealers, however, reported that hybrids aren't as popular in Southeast Missouri as in some locations because drivers in this area do more highway driving, which drives down the mileage of hybrids.

Tammy Elias peeked inside a car Friday at Cape Girardeau Honda as she searched for a more fuel-efficient car. "We already have one SUV," she said. "We don't need two."

"They are a great money-saving option when the right circumstances are there," said Bob Neff, a co-owner of Ford Groves, which has dealerships in Jackson and Cape Girardeau. "But that is mostly stop and go traffic."

One of the biggest increases in sales took place at Cape Honda, which reported a 52.4 percent increase in the number of new cars sold. In all, the dealership, which changed hands in late 2006, sold 1,021 new cars in 2007.

There are two factors at work in the success of Cape Honda, general manager Mike Mullins said. The dealership sharply increased its spending on advertising, with one of the more innovative ideas being a weekly half-hour television show about the dealership.

The other reason, Mullins said, is that the fuel-efficient cars made by the Japanese-branded company showed strong resale value, buoyed in part by the ongoing run-up in pump prices. Most people, he said, are looking for economy.

"I had a guy trade a Suburban today for a small car," Mullins said.

With gas prices of $3.50 or higher predicted within a few months, Mullins said he's preparing the dealership for brisk sales.

"We are going to have a huge year," he said. "We had a great month last month, probably the best February we have ever had, and that is including the two weeks where we were essentially shut down because of ice."

And while the foreign brands are doing well, some sellers of domestic makes are finding that their companies are finally making an impression with buyers that fuel savings can be found in an American nameplate. Manufacturers face stricter fuel standards in coming years and most models are getting better mileage than they did just a few years ago.

"Manufacturers are finding materials that weigh less," said Neff.

Ford Groves reported a 22 percent increase in new vehicle sales in 2007. In total, Ford Groves sold 657 cars, trucks and SUVs in 2007.

Those new materials are in many cases stronger than the steel that was replaced, making the cars, trucks and SUVs safer while saving on fuel, Neff said.

"The domestic automakers had a perception of having all the gas guzzlers and part of what we did last year was sharing the message and getting the news out," Neff said. "Even Lincoln and Mercury are focusing more on gas mileage."

SUVs are still selling, Neff said, but smaller models are becoming more popular. A customer who a few years ago would have purchased an Explorer now considers the smaller Escape model, he said, and the Expedition customers are looking at Explorers.

"There are still people who need the full-size SUV," Neff said. "It is interesting to talk to people about balance."

One way sales staff approach a customer, he said, is to analyze their driving. Even with higher gas prices, people who don't put a lot of miles on their vehicles are realizing that the difference in fuel prices isn't going to be too costly in a less efficient vehicle, he said.

At Auffenberg, 611 S. Kings-highway, the models on hand include the Chrysler lineup -- Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep -- plus Kia and Suzuki cars and light trucks. The dealership sold 1,128 vehicles in 2007, up from 828 in 2006.

Customers at Auffenberg are looking closely at the more efficient models, general manager Darren Garner said. Those who choose pickup trucks, even heavy-duty models that get lower mileage, are choosing gasoline powered vehicles because of the high cost of diesel, Garner said.

Diesel prices, which until recently were close to that of regular gasoline, are now about 40 cents a gallon higher because of new federal rules designed to cut emissions.

"What is driving people is gas prices," he said.

Auffenberg has responded by placing the fuel-efficient models prominently on the car lot, and highlighting a better warranty package from Chrysler to draw customers. Lower interest rates are also helping sales, he said.

"We are optimistic," he said. "We are doing everything we can to make this a better year in 2008."


335-6611, extension 126


Every auto dealer in Cape Girardeau offers vehicles that are capable of getting better gas mileage than those made a few years ago. The Southeast Missourian used www.fueleconomy.gov, a site maintained jointly by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, to find out which vehicles made by companies that have franchised dealers in Cape Girardeau offer the best fuel economy. The list below does not take into account price, type of vehicle or availability. The miles per gallon listed is the combined city-highway rating.

Standard fuel vehicles

- Buick LaCrosse/Allure, 21 mpg

- Cadillac CTS, 21 mpg

- Chrysler Sebring, 24 mpg

- Chevrolet Aveo 5 27 mpg

- Dodge Caliber, 26 mpg

- Ford Focus, 28 mpg

- GMC Canyon 2WD, 20 mpg

- Honda Fit, 30 mpg

- Hyundai Accent, 29 mpg

- Jeep Compass, 25 mpg

- Kia Rio, 29 mpg

- Lincoln MKZ FWD, 22 mpg

- Mercury Milan, 23 mpg

- Mazda 3, 27 mpg

- Mitsubishi Lancer, 24 mpg

- Nissan Versa, 29 mpg

- Pontiac Vibe, 29 mpg

- Saturn Astra 2DR Hatchback, 27 mpg

- Suzuki SX4 Sedan, 26 mpg

- Toyota Yaris, 32 mpg


- Chevrolet Malibu, 27 mpg

- Ford Escape, 32 mpg

- GMC Yukon 1500, 21 mpg

- Honda Civic, 42 mpg

- Mercury Mariner, 32 mpg

- Mazda Tribute, 32 mpg

- Nissan Altima, 34 mpg

- Saturn Vue, 28 mpg

- Toyota Prius, 46 mpg

SOURCE www.fueleconomy.gov

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