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Fuel-Efficiency and Tradeoffs
Americans want more fuel-efficient vehicles and more hybrid choices.

Facing soaring gasoline prices, American car buyers definitely want more fuel-efficient vehicles but might not be ready to give up size, range, performance, or other amenities to achieve that goal, a new Consumer Reports poll has found.
The Auto Pulse survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, polled a nationally representative sample of 1,804 people on issues concerning gas prices and trade-offs they might be considering.

The survey, taken in late April, came just three weeks before the national average gas price spiked to a record $3.22 per gallon of regular unleaded gas on May 21. That is 32.6 cents more than at the corresponding time last year and nearly as high, after adjusting for inflation, as the all-time record set in March 1981.

Even before the surge, gas prices were already on the mind of the approximately one in five respondents who planned to purchase a new car during the coming year.

Among that group, nearly seven in 10 said they would seek a vehicle with better fuel efficiency than their current model. Nearly half would consider a diesel, hybrid or flex-fuel vehicle (the latter can run on gasoline, E85, or any gasoline-ethanol blend), whereas only one in nine primarily drive such cars now.

Car buyers were wary, though, when asked what they would be willing to sacrifice to achieve more miles per gallon. A bare majority (52 percent) said they would give up vehicle size or capacity. Somewhat fewer would trade off range (49 percent), performance (48 percent), or amenities (44 percent).

Forty-two percent said they would be willing to pay more for a fuel-efficient car, and just 31 percent would pay more for special fuel.

The answers reflect the challenge consumers face in a market filled with large, gas-guzzling vehicles where buyers seeking to improve fuel efficiency often must pay extra—typically about $3,000 to $4,000 more for a hybrid model compared with a similar conventional vehicle. Selection is also limited. In fact, survey respondents in the market for a car but who aren't considering a hybrid said selection and price were the main reasons.

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, supports raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards in a manner that makes the auto industry minimize trade-offs between higher mpg and other consumer preferences. "With a meaningful increase in fuel efficiency, consumers can reduce their gasoline expenditures substantially," said Gene Kimmelman, CU's vice president for federal and international affairs. CU recently made public a statement on this issue.

Buyers can maximize fuel economy by considering the most fuel-efficient vehicle in a preferred class. Savings can be significant: midsized sport-utility vehicles, for example, can differ by more than 50 percent in fuel efficiency. (See the best and worst in mpg, available to subscribers.)

Indeed, the survey revealed a desire to be environmentally responsible. Among all car-owning respondents, about 60 percent said they were either concerned or very concerned about the environment, vs. only 6 percent who said they were not concerned. Nearly three-quarters said they would drive slower, or even drive less, to conserve gas because of high gasoline prices.

But consumers also said gas prices would have to go even higher before they would make major changes in behavior. On average, car owners said prices would have to rise to $3.90 per gallon before they would "drastically" reduce their driving. (We believe gasoline demand to be relatively inelastic, meaning that because of work and other commitments, people have to keep buying gas even if the price soars, though they might look for other savings to offset that burden.)

The survey found that drivers in the West and those with incomes of $75,000 or more would resist gas prices longer. For them, it would take a price of $4.50 per gallon to spur dramatic change. Older people and those with incomes under $40,000 were more vulnerable. The majority said they would make drastic cutbacks in driving at an average price of only $3.50.

The Consumer Reports poll was conducted via telephone from April 26 to 30, 2007. Participants had to live in a household that owned at least one vehicle.

To learn how to save at the pump, go to Consumer Reports' complete guide to fuel economy.