Higher gasoline prices are fueling a turnaround in preferences of online car buyers — away from large trucks and SUVs and toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, according to data from Autobytel, an automotive lead referral firm.
Overall, relatively small, fuel-efficient cars fill the list of the biggest gainers at Autobytel, with requests to buy the fuel-friendly Volkswagen Jetta and New Beetle up 30% and requests for the Honda Civic up 29%.
The upswing in requests for the Civic moved the vehicle to the 2nd spot in Autobytel's year-to-date ranking of its most requested vehicles, just behind the ever-popular Honda Accord. The Mazda6 and Hyundai Sonata (both up 23%) continue to be popular with online shoppers, while the Mazda3 makes its debut among the most requested vehicles overall on the Autobytel network.
According to a survey of auto dealers, heightened consumer interest in more fuel-efficient passenger cars is beginning to play out on the showroom floor.
Thirty-three percent of surveyed dealers say fuel efficiency outweighed brand, styling, performance, safety and roominess as a consumer buying consideration.
Eighty-two per cent of dealers say their customers are more interested in fuel-efficiency and fuel-efficient vehicles than they were a year ago. The majority (52%) say they're now having a harder time selling SUVs/trucks than a year ago, despite hefty incentives on many of the larger domestics.
Nearly half (45%) say they are adding, or will soon add, more fuel-friendly vehicles to their inventory mix at the expense of larger trucks/SUVs.
In an Autobytel survey of 3,000 shoppers on the company's car buying web sites, 44% indicate they would shop for a smaller vehicle with better fuel-efficiency, while 60% say they would sacrifice interior space and performance for better fuel-efficiency.
The flip side of the soaring popularity of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars is lower demand for trucks and SUVs.
Purchase requests were down for the most popular trucks and SUVs — with the biggest drop-offs suffered by the biggest models. Requests for the Ford Expedition, for example, were off 25%, while requests for the Hummer H2 — the one-time darling of the utility set — fell 47%.
The honeymoon for the new Nissan Armada, meanwhile, appears threatened, as requests fell nearly 18% from one quarter to the next. Other import SUVs did not fare much better than their domestic counterparts, with the Toyota Sequoia down 12%, the Toyota Land Cruiser 30% off the pace and the Volkswagen Touareg dropping 37%.
Every rule has an exception, and when it comes to Autobytel shoppers' current vehicle downsizing, it's the minivan category, which continues to defy the downward trajectory of its SUV/truck brethren.
The Ford Freestar is leading the rebellion, with a 67% increase in requests. The Chrysler Town and Country (up 16%), Mazda MPV (up 12%), Dodge Caravan (up 11%) and Dodge Grand Caravan (up 8%) are also bucking the smaller-is-better trend.
Recent redesigns and upgrades appear popular with family car shoppers, such as Chrysler's Stow-and-Go folding seats.