Great auto downsizing of 2001

As the cost of fuel rises, Americans are rushing to trade in gas-guzzling SUVs.

All up and down automobile-dealer row here on Van Nuys Boulevard, evidence is growing that a sea change in American car-buying habits may be at hand:

* At Keyes Toyota, customer-relations manager Diane Henson is trading in her six-cylinder 1991 Cressida for a four-cylinder 2001 RAV4. "I wanted to keep it forever, but when gas prices went over $2 per gallon, I said, 'You know what? Maybe now it's time,' " she says.

* Four blocks away, Infiniti salesman Tony Mkrtchyan points over his shoulder to a lot full of used sport utility vehicles, languishing unsold.

"What's selling? Anything with four cylinders," Mr. Mkrtchyan says. "They're trading in fuel-guzzlers for something that's economical and gas-efficient."

* Across the street, Audi brand specialist Alex Ayzin proudly points to a lot full of smaller-engine coups and sedans. "Everybody is rushing in here trying to unload [Ford] Explorers and Expeditions and [Chevy] Tahoes," says Mr. Ayzin. "They're crying on my shoulder, saying: 'This is too much, I don't want to deal with it anymore.' "

Whether the situation is permanent, as a growing chorus of anti-SUV clubs hope, or temporary, as some analysts aver, the great American auto downsizing of 2001 is under way. Faced with fuel prices that this summer could be three times higher than they were just two years ago, many Americans are racing to trade or offload gas-guzzling cars before summer vacation time.

"I'm getting hammered, and I just have to sit here and take it," says Raye Umter, a construction worker looking to sell or trade in his five-year-old Chevy Suburban for a used Maxima or Altima. He figures the long commute he makes daily from Simi Valley in the north to his Culver City work site is costing him $50 a week more than just a few months ago. Like many others, he is now looking to recoup that money by doing the same commute in a smaller car.

"With gas prices headed toward $3 from about $1 just two years ago, we're seeing a lot of apprehension by buyers about getting into sport utility vehicles, especially at the larger end," says Al Azmon, sales manager for Rydell Automotive Group, which owns hundreds of dealerships coast to coast. "But the carmakers are responding too, with new, revamped, and smaller body styles that get better mileage to the gallon."

He points to a mid-range SUV model recently introduced by General Motors called the Trailblazer - larger than GM's Blazer but smaller than its Tahoe brand. The GMC Envoy and Oldsmobile's Bravada are also midsized vehicles introduced to help prolong the American consumer's romance with cars that are high up off the highway, carry larger loads, and offer the largely untapped resource of four-wheel drive.

"Ninety-nine percent of Californians don't engage four wheels, even when they have the capability," Mr. Azmon laughs. "That is documented."

Why American consumers began flocking to the sport vehicle class several years ago is still the subject of hot debate. In March of last year, SUVs accounted for 50 percent of all new vehicle sales, before the number began to slow (despite a 15 percent jump in March).

Drivers of smaller cars bad-mouth the larger models for intimidating them in traffic, hogging spaces in parking lots and garages, and posing threats in collisions because of their weight.

They also decry the extra pollutants spewed into the atmosphere and America's increasing dependence on a nonrenewable resource. A report this week gives such critics even more reason to fume: Americans are burning more fuel than ever just sitting in traffic, with Los Angeles drivers topping the list, spending 45 percent of travel time in jams.

"What really galls me about ... SUV drivers is that the huge majority don't really want them for the off-road work they are designed for," says I.M. Raider, member of an anti-SUV group that networks through the Internet. "They just want the image of power and size."

The comment suggests the further question: Is it a guy thing, a control thing, or an American thing?

"I think it's a bit of all three," says Azmon, who recently traded his Corvette (mileage: 15 miles per gallon) for the "more efficient" Chevy Tahoe (17 m.p.g.). "It feels good to be sitting up high with all that power, where you can see everybody and they can see you."

And not everyone is willing to give up the advantages that come with that higher elevation - namely, extra protection in the event of a collision. Many upscale consumers are more concerned about feeling safe than saving money, and regard more-efficient cars as less sturdy.

"Someone who buys a $50,000 car is not going to be worried about the price of gas week to week," says Aaron Corcoran, a salesman at Center BMW. "They know that if they get a car like this, they are going to pay more," he says, pointing to the BMWX5, a sports activity vehicle that is considered one step down from a true SUV. "But they feel the alternative is to go out and buy some tin can."

Such attitudes are a big reason SUV sales have stayed so high for so long. But aside from the safety aspects, and the practicality of more space, many just like the feel.

"The gas prices are killing me, but I will move out of my apartment and live in my car before I would sell it," says Neele DeWulf, who just bought her second Ford Explorer two weeks ago. Her four fill-ups a month used to cost $120, but now cost $150 and may go much higher. But because she loves the speed, handling, and all-round aesthetic of her SUV, she'll hang on to it at all costs.

With a net income of about $2,000 per month, and rent of $950, Ms. DeWulf is eating into discretionary cash to fill her tank. "I'm eating out less and have stopped getting my gourmet coffee every day, for the time being," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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