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Gas-saving cars in high demand

Griffin Pontiac Buick salesman Woody Hayes, right, shows Billy Evans a Pontiac G6 on Tuesday. The demand for hybrid cars and small cars with good gas mileage is rapidly increasing thanks to soaring gas prices.
Griffin Pontiac Buick salesman Woody Hayes, right, shows Billy Evans a Pontiac G6 on Tuesday. The demand for hybrid cars and small cars with good gas mileage is rapidly increasing thanks to soaring gas prices.

Get in line if you're a car shopper hoping to drive home a gas-saving hybrid or affordable compact.

Area car dealers are reporting an increased demand for small cars with good gas mileage and trendy new hybrids as record high gas prices continue to escalate.

"A few days, and they're gone," Bill Patterson, sales manager at Harrelson Toyota in Rock Hill, said about compact used cars coming across his lot. "The first thing customers ask: 'Is it good on gas?' People want gas-savers."

Patterson said 70 percent of sales are from the economical Corolla, Matrix and Yaris models and hybrid cars on his lots. But don't expect to find the Toyota Prius, the best-selling hybrid in the country, anywhere nearby, he said. There is a waiting list with 24 names and growing in Rock Hill alone, at least a 90-day waiting period, he said.

"I had one customer who changed his mind about his Prius when he came to pick it up," Patterson said. "We sold it to someone else before he left the showroom."

Down the street at Griffin Buick-Pontiac-GMC, sales manager Eddie Pittman said any vehicle rated better than 25 miles per gallon will sell fast. Trucks and big SUVs, on the other hand, aren't attracting much attention, despite special offers designed to entice hesitant buyers.

"We're probably gonna be out of small cars in a couple days," Pittman said.

But the demand for smaller vehicles isn't necessarily good news for consumers or car makers.

Buyers are paying top dollar for small cars, even used ones, because demand is so high, but auto makers are having a hard time keeping up with consumer needs.

In June, General Motors sales dipped 18 percent, according to data released Tuesday. Toyota sales dropped 21.4 percent, and Ford tumbled 28 percent.

Ford reported a 41 percent drop in sales for its popular F-Series pickup trucks and a 52 percent dip in sales for the Ford Explorer, at one time the most popular SUV in the country.

Honda, however, with a wider selection of small cars, saw a 1.1 percent increase in June sales.

Most industry experts blamed the decline on the slow economy and high gas prices, but also because dealers are overstocked with trucks and short on the popular compact models.

There's also a difference in profit margins. Because smaller cars carry a smaller price tag, dealers aren't clearing as much cash.

"It's nice to sell the small cars, but the markup isn't very high," said Greg Armstrong, general sales manager at Carolina Hyundai in Fort Mill, where the popular Hyundai Accent sells for about $12,000. "You're only clearing a couple hundred dollars."

Some smaller, independent used car dealers have had the toughest time, as many of their customers are simply avoiding the lots altogether.

"Sales are way off," said Krista Honeycutt, manager of Americar on Celanese Boulevard. "We haven't had anybody look at a truck in I don't know how long."

Still, Honeycutt said, some families still require an SUV to haul children around town. Those sales have kept business afloat in June.

"The car business is just a roller coaster," she said, noting her family has been in the used car business for 36 years. "Right now, we're just down."

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