Everybody seems to agree that gas prices will keep striding higher, climbing past $4 per gallon and stopping at a level that no one is willing to predict. But so far at least, the panic buying hasn't begun.

That's the news I hear from Charles Daher Jr., manager at Commonwealth Motors, the Lawrence dealership that sells four automobile brands, Chevrolet, Honda, Kia and Volkswagen.

By "panic buying," I mean a replay of the frantic exodus from large vehicles that occurred the last time gas spiked above four bucks. In July 2008, when the average price of regular gas peaked at about $4.10 per gallon, dealers were suddenly swamped with trade-ins of big pickups, heavy, truck-based SUVs and gas-guzzling autos. Their drivers were taking what trade-in payments they could get, and leaving dealerships in new, smaller and more fuel-efficient passenger cars.

"It's not as drastic now as it was last time, when we had people trading in new trucks and big, new SUVs," he said.

I asked Daher about today's buying pattern because I was evaluating the 2011 Kia Sportage. Compact, efficient, practical, yet catchy and stylish, the Sportage is just the type of model that people would seek if they were hurriedly down-sizing from big, brawny haulers.

Thoroughly revamped and remade for 2011, the trim new Sportage is a crossover sport-utility vehicle. Built to provide the comforts and efficiencies of an automobile, the model also offers a measure of the advantages that make larger wagons attractive. With a roomy back-end and the flexibility of flip-down seats, Sportage handles cargo and gear more handily than a passenger car with a similar footprint. Boldly elevated on prominent wheels, it provides an elevated vantage and powerful road presence. The four-door wagon is set up for five passengers, with a back seat that comfortably accommodates two adults. You can buy Sportage with high-traction all-wheel drive, for $1,500 above the price of a comparable, front-drive version.

The starting list price for the model is $18,990, which gets a 176-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and six-gear manual transmission. Moving up a step to add a six-speed automatic transmission (plus other add-ons) brings the base sticker price to $20,990.

While it provides the same assets of a larger SUV in a scaled-down version, the Sportage pays back drivers with economy. When equipped with the automatic transmission, a front-drive model earns an EPA fuel-economy rating of 22 miles per gallon in city driving, 31 mpg on the highway. All-wheel-drive models drop to 28 mpg in the highway rating.

I found that the standard, 176-horsepower four-cylinder engine provided an appropriate balance of economy and pep. Through seven days of ordinary motoring, the Sportage met all my demands and expectations, from fast freeway cruises to scoots around crowded shopping-strip streets. If you're in a bigger hurry, Kia offers an optional, turbocharged four-cylinder in Sportage, with 260 horsepower, It drops three miles per gallon in highway fuel economy, but makes no sacrifice in city fuel economy.

Daher reports that the Sportage is doing well on its own, without any help from panic buying that might drive more people to a compact wagon. Part of its appeal is quality, he said. Kia vehicles across the line demonstrate a quality that equals the performance of the best brands, including Honda and Toyota, Daher noted. Also, he sees shoppers drawn to the appearance and style of the 2011 Sportage. Kia shaped the new model to look crisp, bold and assertive. It sports tall, broad shoulders and a forward-pointing rake.

People are especially attracted to the more-for-the-money value available in the Sportage, Daher explained. The vehicle maintains Kia's reputation for packing a lot of features and equipment into even the lower priced variants of model line, he said.

All levels include advanced anti-lock brakes and dynamic stability control, four-wheel disk brakes, tire-pressure monitoring, rear wiper, cruise, air conditioning, six speakers in an audio system with MP3 playback, split folding rear seat, full-length curtain airbags, and more.

"For the money, a lot of people see that they're getting a lot more with the Sportage," Daher said.

That's an asset that could pay bigger dividends if gas prices once again push car buyers to step down in vehicle size. According to Daher, in past panics, people went more for small passenger cars, because cars provide even better fuel economy than compact sport-utilities. But the passenger-car advantage is not great, he noted.

"If people start to really look at it, they'll see that they don't have to sacrifice too much, that they don't have to go all the way to a car. They can still get a lot more from a gallon of gas" in a moderately sized SUV like Sportage, he said.

They may start to look harder when gas prices break the $4 mark, Daher said. Or they may if the price continues to rise well above that level — a definite possibility, according to a lot of opinions. But so far, unlike the 2008 price spike, today's climb has occurred more gradually. And when it started, the gas price was already higher than it had been three years ago. Those factors have helped stave off the panic, explained Daher.

It also helps that a transition to smaller vehicles is already well underway, he observed. Car companies today make compact models more appealing than in generations past, by making them more spacious and comfortable, more powerful, and better equipped, he said. That transition tempted a lot of people to already switch to more moderately sized models.

Therefore, at least for now, buyers remain rational, with the mix of vehicles they select remaining stable, the manager said. But at its current rate, the average price of regular gas could top $4 per gallon in about two weeks.

"Things might get worse," Daher said.

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Jeffrey Zygmont has written about automobiles since 1982. Based in Salem, N.H., he writes books and articles about innovation, technology and culture. He can be contacted through the Web site jeffreyzygmont.com

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