High gasoline prices are driving demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles. But some customers buying hybrids or electric cars are put off by rising sticker prices and the limited selection.
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With gas prices now exceeding over $4 a gallon, many drivers are looking for vehicles that will go further on a gallon of gas or vehicles that use no gas at all. That’s a change from a year ago, when gas-burning pickup trucks and SUVs accounted for more than three-quarters of all vehicles sold. Buyers looking for more fuel efficiency might not find many choices, however, as NPR’s Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Laurie Silvia (ph) needs a new car. His 2008 Ford Explorer is showing its age, and filling up its 22-gallon gas tank is a drain on his wallet. Silvia loves the explorer feel, though. It contains the tools and plants she needs as a landscaper. And when she’s done working, she can take her stand-up paddle board to the nearby Rhode Island beach.
LAURIE SILVIA: I just like the feeling of something big and heavy, and it helps me feel safer to be up high and surrounded by a good amount of metal. I come from a family of short women, and they’ve all driven huge cars.
HORSLEY: Silvia would like to buy a hybrid SUV that uses less gas, but not at today’s prices.
SILVIA: Right now, I don’t feel like I can afford it, although I would like to.
HORSLEY: Zoe Wise (ph) was also frustrated in her search for a car in Alaska. Right now, Wise and her husband are sharing a 16-year-old Mazda.
ZOE WISE: He’ll drive me to work in the morning, drop me off. And then I’ll drop it off at work after I leave work. Which is kind of ridiculous, too, because with the cost of gas right now, we’re using a lot more gas because we spend time driving to work.
HORSLEY: With gasoline in Anchorage this week selling for 4.69 a gallon, Wise says she gives more weight to her husband’s desire for an electric car.
WISE: I always thought it was a bit of a luxury. I don’t know if it’s something we really need. But now we are looking at this a little more seriously.
HORSLEY: Many car buyers are taking fuel efficiency more seriously since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed gasoline prices to a record high this month. Pat Ryan runs the CoPilot car-buying app, which lets him track what car buyers are looking for and what dealerships are offering.
PAT RYAN: I would say we’re seeing both sides of the dance between consumer and retailer right now.
HORSLEY: This dance is a little off. There’s suddenly a lot more demand for electric cars, hybrids and small gas-powered vehicles, but there aren’t many of them available. Ryan says the price of used Teslas jumped $2,000 in a single week to $63,000. Used SUVs, on the other hand, have been marked down by more than $800 in the past month.
RYAN: It’s the famous hundred dollars to fill up vehicles, isn’t it? I think the dealers are feeling the pressure on those. They fear having these heavy gas guzzlers in the field.
HORSLEY: Ryan says, so far there hasn’t been a similar discount on vans, which are always in high demand. Pete Swenson, who is senior vice president of a Minnesota car dealership chain, notes that pickup trucks and SUVs are getting better gas mileage than before. But he says dealerships are on the lookout for any big shifts in what buyers want.
PETE SWENSON: You know, in the past, when the gas was rising, people reacted quickly. I mean, I’ve never seen so many people trade their trucks and big SUVs for cars. And then when the gas came down, it looks like they came back.
HORSLEY: Electric cars caused a stir at the National Automobile Dealers show in Las Vegas earlier this month, but supplies are tight, prices are relatively high and Swenson says many potential customers are still in wait-and-see mode. Marline Dempster (ph) was looking to replace her old car last month when her neighbor bought a new Tesla. She took a ride in her neighbor’s car and ordered her own Tesla the same day.
MARLINE DEMPSTER: Oh, (laughs) it’s amazing what these cars could do. The couple is amazing. And I feel really good about not using oil.
HORSLEY: Dempster placed his order just before this month, when gasoline prices in California soared to nearly $6 a gallon. She feels lucky to have bought when she did.
DEMPSTER: Since I ordered my Tesla, the deposits have doubled and the price has gone up by several thousand dollars.
HORSLEY: Dempster expects delivery of its new electric car in about two months. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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