Consumer Expectations Rise With Gas Prices

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Thanks to fuel prices that topped $4 a gallon this year, 79% of consumers are interested in buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle, like a hybrid or diesel, next time they’re in the market for new wheels, versus 47% a year ago. That’s according to Consumer Reports’ annual Auto Pulse survey, which it released Thursday.

The 79% figure is nearly the same as the 78% of consumers recently surveyed by J.D. Power and Associates who said they are interested in a higher-mileage vehicle.

At the same time, though, 69% of respondents told Consumer Reports they want their new vehicle to be the same size or larger than the one they now drive. More than half — 54% — said they are willing to pay a higher price for a vehicle that delivers better mileage, such as the premium a diesel or hybrid carries over regular models.

Consumer Reports’ findings again echo J.D. Power’s results, which found that 46% of consumers are willing to purchase an eco-friendly hybrid even it sets them back an average of $5,000 more than a similarly sized conventional car.

The price premium that hybrids carry had discouraged some purchasers in the past, but now that the national average for gas has topped $4 a gallon — it was only $2.96 as recently as February — that’s no longer the case.

Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, says that with hybrid technology and innovations like cylinder deactivation, which shuts off the supply of fuel when it isn’t needed, the industry should be able to reconcile bigger size with more fuel-efficient operation.

And the fact that more than half of consumers say they are willing to pay a premium should prompt the industry to offer a greater number of hybrids.

“Hybrids aren’t cheap, yet they’re flying out showroom doors and there’s a three- to six-month wait for some of them because people are now willing to pay for better fuel economy,” Cooper said.

In April, CFA conducted its own survey and found that 50% of all consumers hope to get at least 30 mpg from their next vehicle. About 30% want at least 35 mpg.

“But 99% of all vehicles today get less than 30 mpg, so there is a difference between what people want and what automakers give them,” he said. “What people buy is a compromise between what they want and what they find.”

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