Buyers drive interest in fuel-efficient cars

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2013 - 12:44 PM

Compare the fuel costs of various models on prospective vacation trips using AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator website (www.fuelcostcalculator.com).

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An undated handout photo of the Ford Fusion Titanium. The Fusion stands out from the midsize crowd with an Aston Martin-style grille and a rakish body.

Photo: Ford Motor, New York Times

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Twin Cities auto dealers are reporting growing consumer interest in fuel-efficient vehicles, from hybrid and electric models to more environmentally and economically friendly gasoline engines.

Rising gasoline prices helped hybrid and electric-powered vehicles and other so-called alternative powertrain vehicles to gain market share last year through October, nearly doubling to 3 percent of new vehicles sold compared to the fourth quarter of 2011, according to the most recent figures available from the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association.

That increase came after three flat years of hybrid and electric sales in the state and before gasoline prices began rising in January.

“Every time in the midwest that we run up to the $4 mark, it’s a psychological barrier for a lot of folks,” Gail Weinholzer, public affairs director for AAA Minnesota/Iowa, said of cost per gallon of gasoline, which averaged $3.76 in Minnesota (on Feb. 19), according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report (www.fuelgaugereport.com). “It causes them to take their transportation options very seriously and assess their options, with one of their being different types of vehicles.”

Style also still matters to many consumers, which along with fuel-efficiency is helping to drive interest in Ford’s mid-size Fusion and compact Focus, said Michael Saxon, president of Inver Grove Ford in Inver Grove Heights.

“They’re very conscious of fuel efficiency and style, and those two vehicles have both and have all up-to-date technology,” Saxon said. “The style of the Focus and the style of the Fusion are very well received and the miles-per-gallon of the two vehicles is a tremendous plus too.”

Adam Bell of Bloomington said fuel efficiency was a major consideration for him in his recent purchase of a Ford Fusion SE from Inver Grove Ford.

“My drive to work isn’t that much,” Bell said of his 20-minute commute. “But I’m making sure I get the most out of my money because I’ve got one kid and another on the way. I wan to keep fuel costs down so I can pay for day care. The bells and whistles that came with the car are minor compared to making sure it drove well and can get good mileage out of it.”

At Luther Brookdale Honda in Brooklyn Center, general manager Jim Haertzen said Civics and gas-electric hybrid models have gotten greater attention from buyers as gasoline prices have climbed in recent weeks. So have models at the higher end of the fuel-efficient lineup.

“Our care are all fuel efficient but the CR-V and the Fit are high-mileage vehicles that are getting more consideration in the last 30 days,” Haertzen said. “We have our loyal customers and because of our fuel-efficient reputation, now we’re seeing a lot of consideration from people looking at our cars for maybe the first time.”

Haertzen expressed optimism that buyer consideration will climb further with the arrival of the Twin Cities Auto Show, March 9-17 at the Minneapolis Convention Center, serving as the unofficial start of the new buying season.

Besides the interest in fuel efficiency, new and redesigned vehicles from most manufacturers, low interest rates, relatively high trade-in values and pent-up demand are fueling that optimism, Haertzen said. “The stars are lining up,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for consumers.”

While commuters may look for smaller cars with good mileage, consumers who have larger families or towing needs often opt for something bigger, said Michael Kahn, general manager at Stillwater Motors, which sells Chevrolet and Buick vehicles.

“We still sell Tahoes, Silverados and Suburbans,” Kahn said. “They can get close to 20 miles per gallon and still live the lifestyle they want to live. You don’t have to limit yourself.”

Fuel-efficient Chevrolet models such as the Spark, Sonic and Cruze are drawing buyer interest because they match up well with imports, Kahn said.

Todd Nelson is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

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