Trucks Remain Brisk Sellers Despite the Rising Gasoline Prices

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Car shoppers may be grumbling about soaring gasoline prices in California and around the country, but their buying habits haven't changed much.

Trucks, which guzzle far more gas generally than do cars, still accounted for nearly half of all passenger vehicle sales in the first five months of this year. And sales of large sport-utility vehicles showed a surprising 14.5% gain in a declining overall market.

Overall light-truck sales--pickups, vans and sport-utilities--dipped by just 4.8%, while passenger car sales dropped 6.4%.

The biggest gains in the truck department were posted by the growing segment of "crossover" utility vehicles such as the Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape and Honda CR-V.

The crossovers are smaller and lighter than other SUVs, are built on car-like unibody platforms for a smoother ride than truck-based utility vehicles and tend to be more fuel-efficient than other trucks and vans.

Nationally, buyers gobbled up 372,162 of the "CUVs" through May--including almost 160,000 models, from the Ford Escape to the Acura MDX, that didn't exist a year earlier. There was a 30.8% increase in crossover sales among models that were around last year, and a 128.2% increase when all of the new vehicles are included.

Analysts say the impact of gas prices on SUV and pickup sales probably will be felt over the next few months but could be offset by incentives offered by the auto makers, by lower interest rates and by the anticipation of a federal income tax cut.

So far, the sales decline in the light-truck segment is being shouldered by the pickup, minivan and mid-size sport-utility groups.

"We haven't seen any retreat at all" from bigger SUV sales, said Robin Edmond, general sales manager at Santa Margarita Ford in Rancho Santa Margarita.

"Customers do complain" about rising fuel prices, he said, but the three best-selling vehicles at the south Orange County dealership are trucks, and two of them come standard with V-8 engines--the Ford F-Series pickup and the full-size Expedition SUV. The third is the mid-size Explorer SUV, and Edmond said most of those are sold with the V-6 engine.

Nationally, sales of Ford's big Excursion were off 27.9% at the end of May. Only 15,232 of the 19-foot, 4-ton, 12-mile-per-gallon SUVs were sold in the first five months of the year.

But sales of Chevrolet's redesigned Tahoe full-size sport-utility and its GMC twin, the Yukon, were up almost 48%, while the Suburban and Yukon XL models, longer version of the Tahoe that are nearly as large as the Excursion, were up 7%.

Together, the big Chevrolet and GMC sport-utilities accounted for 196,298 vehicles sold though May.

"A lot of GM's large SUV performance is because of incentives," says analyst Wes Brown of Nextrend automotive consulting in Thousand Oaks. "If you can qualify for all of the different packages, you can get $3,000 back on a new Suburban right now."

Nextrend and other consulting firms say that consumer surveys over the last year have found that the price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline would have to hit $3 before it had a significant impact on American automotive buying habits.

"Most people moved to SUVs because they are cool to own. They are image vehicles," Brown said. "They don't want to give that up, [although] many who are repeat SUV buyers now are moving to the crossovers to get their better handling, ride and performance.

"Gas mileage is just an added benefit."

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SUVs Still Rule

Passenger vehicle sales are declining as gasoline prices soar, but the two dont seem to be connected. Although car sales were down 6.4% through May, sales of less-fuel-efficient trucks fell just 4.8% and SUV sales soared.

Percent change in January-May 2001 vehicle sales, compared with the same period a year earlier:

Crossover SUVs: +128.2%

Full-size SUVs: +14.5

All SUVs: +8.8

All light trucks: -4.8

All passenger vehicles: -5.6

All passenger cars: -6.4

Source: Autodata Corp.

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