Drivers Downsizing

Staff photo: Andy DeLisle The Ford Escape Hybrid gets 34 miles per gallon in city driving. When the vehicle travels under 25 mph, the gas engine turns off and the car is powered by the electric motor.

By Helena Rodriguez: CNJ staff writer

Fed up with rising gas prices, consumers are purchasing hybrid cars, downsizing from trucks and SUVs to smaller vehicles and cars, and, as is the case with Nerissa Custer, seriously considering buying motorcycles.

With gas averaging around $3.38 a gallon this week, Custer said, “I’ve been wanting to get a motorcycle for awhile, but it was about whether or not to spend the money to have another vehicle. With the high gas prices now, the incentive is there. Motorcycles get about 50 miles to the gallon.”

Custer is a graduate student at Eastern New Mexico University and has been commuting in a pickup truck to Portales each weekday from Cannon Air Force Base, where her husband is stationed.

“The cost of gas really adds up. It’s crazy. You don’t notice it until the prices go up,” Custer said. “I haven’t filled up my tank in so long. I’ll put in $20 or $25. Back in the good ole days, I used to fill it up.”

At the High Plains Harley-Davidson store in Clovis, motorcycle sales are beginning to increase.

“I have actually had some people say that the high cost of gas is the reason they are ‘riding’ again,” said sales manager Mike Burdett. “I think our sales will continue to go up if the gas prices keep going up.”

At local car dealerships, gas-saving hybrid cars are in demand and have become hard to keep in stock.

“I have one hybrid car in stock right now,” said Tim Baldwin, a sales consultant at Hamilton Big Country Ford. “We have had an increase in demand and an increase in inquiries for these cars.”

The dealership has carried Ford’s 2005 Escape Hybrid for several years, but has only recently begun to have problems keeping them on the lot.

Baldwin said hybrid cars, which start in the $20,000s, run on electricity up to 25 miles per hour and then operate on a combination of electricity and gas at higher speeds. Ford also has F-150 trucks with an E85 flex-fuel motor that runs on ethanol.

Baldwin said sales for large sport utility vehicles are slow, but said sales of smaller SUVs are steady. He added, “We’ve had a few people downsizing to smaller cars. The ones I’ve seen are young families.”

At Bailey-Strebeck Jeep Mitsubishi, sales representative Mike Mendoza said he had three customers in a row come in last Saturday driving SUVs, and all of them wanted to get rid of them or park them.

“They’re all looking for smaller cars with better mileage,” Mendoza said. “A few years ago, everybody wanted an SUV. Now, it’s the opposite. Everybody wants out, and everybody wants to downsize.

“I have a gentleman who commutes. He lives in Clovis, goes to school at Eastern in Portales and works on a dairy north of Clovis, and he is wanting out of his truck,” Mendoza said. “He’s a younger man. There’s a thing with young men and trucks, but he’s in college. He’s having to pay his own bills now, and he realizes he needs a smaller car.”

At Bender Honda-Nissan, general manager Larry Roubison has adopted the slogan, “Our cars hate gas!” He said people who want to buy trucks and sport utilities are still going to buy them; they’re just going to pay the price for the fuel. But it’s in the area of hybrid cars where he sees the demand right now.

“We have Honda Civic hybrids and Honda Accord hybrids and we have sold all we can get lately,” Roubison said. “I have a couple of people waiting for a couple of hybrids that I have coming in.”

Even with the rising cost of gas, however, Roubison remains optimistic.

“I honestly don’t think this will impact car sales,” he said. “It is one of those phases we’re going through and people will get adjusted. Once gas gets back down to about $2.75, people will deal with it. We don’t have a choice.”

Mendoza thinks high gas prices are more than just a phase, though.

“Times are changing, changing quickly. We’ve got to find ways to save gas. I tell my kids that when they get to be my age, SUVs will be a thing of the past.”