With the cost of a gallon of gas somewhere north of $3 and not looking back, local car dealers say many motorists are shedding their beloved sports utility vehicles in favor of mid-sized family sedans.
Hybrids, cars that run on a combination of gasoline and electricity, are up and coming, but local dealers say many customers are opting for sedans and so-called crossovers — vehicles that resemble small trucks but are built on car platforms for better mileage.
Fuel-efficient vehicles — even used fuel-efficient cars — are so popular they are difficult to keep in stock, some dealers say.
Commonwealth Motors at 1 Commonwealth Drive in Lawrence sells a full line of Chevrolet, Honda and Kia vehicles.
"They are so popular we don't have enough cars available," sales manager Charles Daher Jr. said of fuel-efficient cars.
People are coming in and getting out of their SUVs, Daher said.
And even used fuel-efficient vehicles are going out the door right away, he said.
Among the most popular fuel-efficient cars Commonwealth sells are the Honda Civic and Accord, the Chevrolet Impala and Malibu, and the Kia Spectra.
"Hybrids are not really popular yet," Daher said, adding that the dealership is expecting to receive a hybrid SUV from Chevrolet soon.
The cars that are getting 30 mpg, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Aveo, are the big sellers, he said. The Aveo models are not made in the United States and it takes awhile to get them, Daher said.
"Anything over 30 mpg, people are really scoffing up," he said.
And thepeople who need the bigger cars are finding good deals, Daher said.
The rising popularity of fuel-efficient vehicles seems to be directly related to the cost of fuel, said Emmett Horgan, owner of Rockingham Toyota at 354 Main St., Rockingham Nissan at 343 Main St., and Rockingham Honda at 360 N. Broadway, all in Salem, N.H.
"People are obviously very concerned about the price of fuel," Horgan said.
He said motorists are concerned particularly if they are in a vehicle that is not fuel efficient.
For those who travel a distance to work, it becomes a very expensive commute.
He said visitors to his dealerships are asking a lot of questions about hybrids, cars that run on electric power and gasoline engines.
"Toyota is the leader in hybrid sales and production," Horgan said. "Eighty percent of all hybrids sold in the world are made by Toyota."
But it is not just hybrids that are popular sellers, he said.
"We are seeing people downsizing in cars. And a lot of people still need the full-size cars, and that is where today's technology really comes into play."
He pointed to the full-sized Toyota Tundra, a 380-horsepower pickup with a six-speed transmission and onboard computerized functions, that gets excellent gas mileage.
Hybrids make up about 15 percent of sales across his three dealerships, Horgan said.
"We are kind of capped by what is available," he said.
On the Toyota side, in addition to the Prius hybrid that gets 53 mpg in city driving, there are the Scion, Yaris, Camry and Corolla, all in the mid-30 mpg range.
Honda offers the Fit at 38 mpg and the Civic at 35 to 38 mpg. Nissan has the Versa at 38 mpg and the Sentra in the mid-30 mpg range.
The Prius has proven to be a dependable vehicle. Horgan said the car has been on the road since 2001 and "we've never had to replace a battery."
He said Toyota warranties the batteries in the Prius for 150,000 miles.
At Bill Deluca
William DeLuca IV, vice president of the Bill DeLuca family of dealerships, said the rising cost of gasoline has many people looking for more fuel-efficient cars.
"The trend is on the way up for fuel-efficient cars," DeLuca said.
He said families with large SUVs are facing weekly fuel bills nearing $100, and many of them are choosing mid-size SUVs with smaller engines.
"There are a lot of inquiries for the mid-size vehicles," he said.
The DeLuca dealerships offer the Pontiac Vibe and the Chevrolet Aveo, among other fuel-efficient cars, DeLuca said.
"People are concerned over the $3 a gallon gasoline," he said. "Everybody is feeling it, especially with the cost of home heating this winter."
Most buyers of full-size pickup trucks and large SUVs need them because they are in business, DeLuca said.
The demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles stems from people "thinking green and becoming more aware," said Ann Regan, co-owner of Regan Ford, 501 Broadway in Haverhill.
People are asking what they can do to improve, she said.
"I've seen it happen in the showroom, and it has happened in the maintenance department. People are maintaining their cars better," she said.
People come into the dealership and look over the hybrids and ask a lot of good questions, Regan said.
"Nine out of 10 times they drive out of here in a gasoline-powered car, because of availability — we can't keep them (hybrids) in stock," Regan said.
She said the single person who drove that big SUV won't stay in it, and people with families won't give them up.
Among the fuel-efficient vehicles available at Regan Ford are the 35 mpg Ford Focus, the Ford Fusion and Ford Escape, which can get 28 to 30 mpg with the four-cylinder engine option.
Good gas mileage is also a function of how people drive, and one of the most important but least recognized ways to increase gas mileage is to keep the right amount of air pressure in your tires, she said.
"It is the biggest thing you can do to improve fuel economy," she said. "You can raise it two miles per gallon."
Brian Wall, vice president of Wall's Lincoln Mercury at 115 Merrimack St., Methuen, said as a Lincoln dealer, he and his staff have seen a strong loyalty to the larger SUVs.
But, he said, the dealership is seeing a definite decrease in the sales of SUVs.
"I don't know if it is fuel-related, or a market thing," Wall said. "Even before we started seeing gas prices rise, we were noticing a decrease in SUV sales."
Wall said "crossover vehicles," smaller vans and SUVs built on a car chassis, are gaining in popularity.
"They handle like a car and have the fuel mileage you would expect to get with a car," he said.
The Lincoln MKX is one of the bestsellers and gets 25 mpg, Wall said. The Lincoln MKZ is a smaller sedan that boasts 28 mpg on the window sticker.
And the Mercury Milan comes with either a four- or six-cylinder engine and gets 26 mpg, Wall said.
The Mercury Mariner, a small SUV, comes with a four- or six-cylinder option and gets gas mileage in the mid-20s, depending on the engine, he said.