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As Gas Prices Continue to Rise, Car Buyers Looking for More for the Mile

"The first question when customers walk through the door is fuel economy,” said Tom Hart, a sales manager with Eagle Auto Mall.

As gas prices continue their climb since last fall – and relatively rapid climb since the end of February – both national and local dealers are seeing a shift toward fuel thrift as drivers try to get more for their money at the pump.

According to LongIslandGasPrices.com, on May 12 the average price for regular gas on Long Island was $4.257, up almost 90 cents per gallon from three months ago and over $1.10 from six months back; countrywide trends were in line.

Concurrently, car sales have risen while truck sales have fallen on a national level.

And local dealers are seeing the change in their own lots as well.

"The first question when customers walk through the door is fuel economy,” said Tom Hart, a sales manager with Eagle Auto Mall. “Car buyers on Long Island are very much in the moment. When gas prices are not so bad, they’re buying trucks and SUVs; now they’re interested in our KIAs and Mazdas that get 30-35 miles a gallon.”

It is not only Long Island drivers who are “in the moment." Nationwide, sales of KIAs and Mazdas are up 65.1 percent and 7 percent respectively, from April 2010 to April 2011.

“It has definitely hit everyone psychologically,” Hart said. “I can see that Route 58, which usually has heavy traffic, has less cars.”

Numbers from AutoData show that nationwide, auto sales in whole were up four percent in the past six months, jumping from 12.26 million sales in November to 13.17 million in April.

But as gas prices have continued to rise, customers have trended toward smaller vehicles. While 40,000 fewer customers bought trucks in April than in November, nearly 1,000,000 more purchased cars, according to AutoData.

Though that’s not all bad, for all dealers.

“Actually the gas situation is beneficial for us,” said Adam Hofer, sales manager at Apple Honda. “Our cars are the most fuel-efficient of any automaker … But definitely people are looking at the smaller cars.”

Consumer Reports choose Honda as the best budget car in the U.S. for 2011, with Toyota and Subaru close behind. Honda car sales are up 10.8 percent from this April to last, and its light trucks are up 8.4 percent.

Donald Cacioppo of Riverhead Ford spoke about increased interest in cars such as the Fiesta and the Focus 2012, “that gets 40 miles a gallon.” The EPA rates the Ford Fiesta as getting 40 mpg highway, 29 city.

He said, “Also a lot of Ford’s engines are flex fuel; you can use ethanol, which is a good deal cheaper than regular gasoline.”

As for ethanol, or E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline), it is cheaper, but it gets less miles per gallon. As of May 11, Calverton Getty on Middle Country Road, was selling E85 for $3.29 and regular gas for $4.13. According to fueleconomy.gov, flex-fuel vehicles - vehicles which take E85 - typically get about 25 to 30 percent fewer miles per gallon than cars fueled with regular gas.

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