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With gas prices exceeding $4 a gallon, many drivers are looking for a car that will go further on a gallon of gas, or perhaps a car that uses no gas at all.
Finding such a car, however, is not easy.
Electric cars and gasoline-electric hybrids are rare, and prices have climbed rapidly. Small gasoline-powered cars are also rare, as automakers have focused on building more lucrative pickup trucks and SUVs.
Take Lori Silvia, landscaper in Middletown, RI, who is looking to replace her 2008 Ford Explorer.
She would like a vehicle that consumes less gas but can also accommodate her gardening tools, her dog and her stand-up paddleboard.
“I just like the feeling of something big and heavy,” says Silvia. “I come from a family of little women, and we’ve all driven huge cars.”
But for now, she is unlucky.
“I would love a hybrid SUV one day,” says Silvia. “But right now I don’t feel like I can afford it.”
America’s love affair with SUVs and pickup trucks
SUVs and pickup trucks accounted for more than three out of four vehicles sold in the United States last year.
But consumers have become more attentive to fuel economy now that gasoline prices have skyrocketed at a record high, not adjusted for inflation.
Gas-powered compact cars are generally less expensive and use less gas, but supplies are limited.
Indeed, automakers prioritized building larger, more cost-effective vehicles as they battled a shortage of semiconductors.
“If you’re General Motors, you’d rather do a big SUV,” says Pat Ryan, CEO of car shopping app CoPilot. “A big Suburban can make you $10,000. There’s no way you can make $10,000 on a $25,000 car.”
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Dealerships say they’re still seeing strong sales of SUVs and pickup trucks, though they’re on the lookout for any significant shifts in consumer demand.
“Before, when the gas [prices] skyrocketing, people reacted quickly,” says Pete Swenson, senior vice president of the Walser Automotive Group, which operates a series of dealerships in Minnesota, Kansas and Illinois.
“And then when the gas came down, it looks like they came back,” Swenson adds.
But interest in electric cars is growing
Americans are also increasingly considering the option of going electric.
Zoe Wise, for example, gives more weight to her husband’s desire for an electric car, now that they pay $4.59 for gas in Anchorage, Alaska.
“I always thought that was a bit of a luxury. I don’t know if that’s something we have to get,” Wise says of electric cars. “But now we’re looking at that a little more seriously.”
The couple currently share a single subcompact car: a 2008 Toyota Matrix.
Wise is encouraged that the State of Alaska plans to build a series of vehicle charging stations on the highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
But finding an electric vehicle is also difficult, despite growing interest.
Electric vehicles currently account for just over 4% of U.S. sales, even as automakers rush to produce electric versions of their current models or introduce new ones.
The initial cost of electric vehicles is also high.
Rising demand pushed the price of used Teslas to $63,000, a jump of $1,700 in a single week, according to data from the CoPilot app.
“There’s a ton of demand in the market, but there just isn’t the supply,” says CoPilot CEO Ryan.
Used SUVs, on the other hand, have dropped in price by an average of $862 over the past month.
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You can still buy an electric car
Yet it is possible to get an electric vehicle. It just takes a little patience.
When Marlene Dempster’s Audi died last month, she went looking for a replacement, with little success.
“It was so frustrating,” Dempster said of the limited inventory of new cars. “I turned around to try to find a used one, and it was even worse. Almost $50,000 for a three-year-old car? The used market is absolutely out of this world right now. “
Then his neighbor got a new Tesla. Dempster dropped by and immediately ordered his own electric vehicle.
“Oh, it’s amazing what these cars can do,” laughs Dempster. “The torque is amazing. And I feel really good about not using oil.”
Dempster felt even better a few weeks later, when gas prices in Ventura, Calif., where she lives, soared to nearly $6 a gallon.
“Since I ordered my Tesla, the down payment has doubled and the price has gone up by several thousand dollars,” Dempster says.
She does not drive it yet: She hopes to take delivery of the car in about two months.