Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
March 14, 2008
In the Orlando area, for instance, the average price of regular gasoline climbed to yet another all-time peak of $3.25 a gallon Thursday, up nearly 30 cents from a month ago, according to AAA.
With no apparent end in sight, Central Floridians have started altering their vehicle-buying habits. The shift is gradual, but there are signs -- from car sales to spending patterns on recreational vehicles -- that consumers may finally be changing course. (Use our interactive calculator to determine your potential savings.)
Sales of many gas guzzlers are down. Sales of fuel-efficient hybrids are up.
"I feel that gas is going to keep going up," said Bill Strickler, 57, who recently ditched his Chevy pickup for a gas-sipping Smart, a tiny car that gets 36 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.
The owner of a small Orlando cable company, Strickler estimates his new purchase will cut down significantly on expenses, given that he has to drive about 100 miles a day for work.
"I took steps and think I have a solution," he said.
Prices for the Smart, sold by Mercedes, range from less than $12,000 for lower-end models to about $16,000 for more equipped models.
Others are also reconsidering their car choices, new-car sales data shows.
Last year, sales of sport utility vehicles in Central Florida plunged nearly 19 percent compared with 2006, according to a Sentinel analysis of new vehicle sales data provided by Experian Automotive. Meanwhile, hybrid-car sales in Central Florida jumped 47 percent in 2007.
Sales of General Motors' Hummer -- which gets about 15 mpg -- plummeted nearly 50 percent last year in Central Florida. In contrast, sales of the Toyota Prius -- which gets 46 mpg -- climbed more than 50 percent, according to data from Experian Automotive.
The move away from gas guzzlers echoes a national trend, according to Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at Edmunds.com, an automotive-information company. SUVs have lost market share during the past four years, and fuel-efficient compact cars have gained, Caldwell said.
"I think people are starting to make those [purchasing] changes," she said.
Nick Oliver, general manager of Courtesy Toyota in Winter Park, said prospective buyers are paying closer attention to a vehicle's fuel consumption.
"Five or 10 years ago, fuel economy rarely came up," Oliver said. "Today, almost all customers are interested in fuel economy."
Debbie Ruiz of Windermere said she will strongly consider a fuel-efficient car for her next purchase. "Next time, I'll buy a hybrid," she said while filling up her Honda Odyssey van at Costco in Winter Park.
"I'm in sales, so I don't have a choice and I have to drive for my job," Ruiz said. To save, Ruiz said she combines trips for sales calls and buys gas at Costco, where regular was $3.15 for club members on Thursday, about 10 cents less than nearby stations.
Others feeling the pinch include RV sellers and boat dealers.
Ken Prentiss, sales manager at Leisure Time RV in Winter Garden, said he has noticed an uptick in customers looking to trade in larger RVs for smaller, more fuel-efficient ones.
"Gas is a factor," Prentiss said. "But the economy is also a factor."
Nick Hanna, general sales manager for Parker Boats in Orlando, said sales of midsized and higher-end boats have held up, but sales of smaller sport and fishing boats have dropped off. Hanna said buyers of those boats tend to draw a smaller paycheck. His thought: Those buyers might be hurt more by high gas costs and the housing slump.
"Our smallest-boat buyers, they've been affected the worst," he said.
The recent run-up in gas prices is largely because of the rapid rise in the price of crude oil, which makes up about half the price at the pump. On Thursday, crude oil closed at just above $110 per barrel, after briefly touching an all-time high of $111.
Gas prices typically increase this time of year as stations switch to selling a more expensive summer blend of fuel and driving demand picks up. But a huge run on crude oil -- sparked by speculation from traders that commodities will be a safe investment in the current economic climate -- is largely to blame this time around, said Gregg Laskoski, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South. High oil prices also kept gas prices up over the winter, when they typically drop, he added. As a result, $4 gas is more likely come summer, he said.
"The retail fuel prices that we are seeing now, they are not due to the supply-and-demand fundamentals that customarily impact prices," Laskoski said.
Mark Chediak can be reached at 407-420-5240 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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