High gas prices motivate drivers to change direction

Nearly three-quarters of surveyed motorists would consider an alternative-fuel vehicle for their next car

Published: May 2012

With fuel prices at near-record levels, motorists are driving less and contemplating a move to a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle when it comes time to buy their next vehicle. Those are among the findings from our latest nationally representative car-owner survey* about the impact of rising fuel prices conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

Based on the survey, it is clear that high fuel prices, and the economy in general, are impacting driver behavior and influencing future purchase considerations. In fact, despite gasoline prices being only slightly higher than a year ago, about one-third of respondents said that they’re driving fewer miles than they did 12 months ago.

What influences the choice of the next car?

When it comes time to shop for their next new car, 37 percent of survey respondents said fuel economy is the leading consideration, trumping other important factors including quality, safety, and value.

Car-purchase factor Most important (%)
Fuel economy 37
Quality 17
Safety 16
Value 14
Performance 6
Design/style 6
Technology/innovation 3

Two-thirds of respondents said they expect their next vehicle to get as much or somewhat better fuel economy than the one they’re driving now, and about 60 percent of owners said they were willing to sacrifice on the size or capacity of the vehicle to get it. About half said they would give up some comfort or amenities. Clearly, some compromise is necessary to achieve significant gains. Both the survey and sales trends show that many consumers are indeed downsizing to achieve their goals.

More than half of those considering a more efficient vehicle cited motivations other than fuel costs, including a desire to be more environmentally friendly (62 percent) and concern about the nation’s dependence on foreign oil (56 percent). About a third said a change in lifestyle or family was motivating their plans—a common cause for shifting car priorities. Relative to men, women disproportionately said they are motivated by the environmental benefit of better fuel economy (65 vs. 58 percent), more concerned about dependence on foreign oil (63 vs. 49 percent), and impacted by changes on the home front (38 vs. 31 percent).

Motivations Percentage
Lower fuel costs 90
Latest fuel-saving technology 69
Environmentally friendly/green 62
Dependence on foreign oil 56
Change in lifestyle/family 34

What will consumers buy?

With high interest in fuel economy, it is no surprise that more than one-fifth of respondents said their next vehicle is most likely going to be a small car, followed by a family sedan, midsized SUV, pickup, and small SUV. Only two percent of owners surveyed are likely to buy a wagon, even though wagons typically provide a better balance of fuel economy and passenger/cargo versatility than SUVs.

In analyzing movement among the car types, we find significant growth in small-car and midsized-SUV purchase intent, and modest gains for small SUVs. The losing segments are larger sedans and minivans, each dropping several percentage points compared with current ownership. Clearly, the American fleet shows signs of shifting as consumers replace their current rides. 

Car type Currently own (%) Plan to buy (%)
Small car 17 22
Midsized SUV 11 15
Small SUV 9 11
Pickup truck 13 14
Convertible 1 1
Sporty car 5 5
Wagon 2 2
Large SUV 5 3
Minivan 10 5
Sedan 24 18

Further, the survey shows that many consumers are open to considering alternatives to a traditional gasoline-fueled engine. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of participants said they’re thinking about buying a vehicle powered by an alternative drivetrain, such as a hybrid, flex-fuel (which can use E85 ethanol), natural gas, or electric vehicle. Interest in flex-fuel and hybrids was almost tied, at about 40 percent. Younger buyers were more likely to consider an alternatively fueled or purely electric vehicle than drivers over 55 years old.

Only one in five are considering a diesel car, which we’ve found to be among the most fuel-efficient vehicle types we’ve tested and little different than driving a gasoline-powered car. A lack of reasonably priced diesel models may be a deterrent. That is supported by the finding that affluent consumers are more likely to consider diesel, probably because they can afford more of the limited and pricier diesel options available, such as models from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

So, what should I do?

When gas prices are high, it’s always tempting to rush to trade in for a more fuel-efficient vehicle to save at the pump. But our research has shown that you’re often better off financially to stick it out with the vehicle you have if it’s less than three years old, because a new vehicle will cost you more in depreciation than you would save on gas. And when it comes time to trade, look for a Recommended model that not only gets good fuel mileage but also is safe, reliable, and fits the needs of you and your family today and down the road. 

Check out our lists of most fuel-efficient cars and SUVs. Be sure to go to the model pages for details on road tests, reliability, owner costs, and pricing information.

Related: Weekly average gas prices.  

* Editor's Note:

The random, nationwide telephone survey was conducted in two waves, April 5 to 7 and April 12 to 15, 2012. The Consumer Reports National Research Center interviewed 1,702 adults in households that had at least one car.

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