Gas prices fuel change

Vehicles fill the busy intersection Monday afternoon at Prince and 21st streets. Record high gas prices are changing the way some people look at purchasing vehicles. (CNJ staff photo: John Eisel)

By Ryn Gargulinski: CNJ staff writer

Local auto dealers are feeling the effect of record-high gas prices.

But the news is not all bad. While some dealers reported drops in sales, others said customers have simply adjusted priorities.

Gas efficiency is in. Gas-guzzlin’ SUVs and trucks are out.

“Every time we have a gas price increase we get a lot of customers with trade-ins,” said Bryce Bender, owner of Bender Chevrolet Oldsmobile Cadillac Inc. on Mabry Drive. “We can offer them cars that get 35 to 45 miles to the gallon that substantially save them $50 to $100 month.”

Bender said sales have stayed steady as the average price for unleaded gas in New Mexico reached a record high of $2.28 per gallon last week, according to a AAA of New Mexico survey.

All dealers have noticed the customers’ change of focus. Sunroofs and stereo systems are no longer key selling points.

“There is definitely a bigger interest in the number of economic vehicles,” said Bill Guhrke of Hamilton Big Country Ford on Mabry Drive. He said the Ford Focus can get 30 plus miles per gallon and the hybrid Ford Escape can easily amass between 400-500 miles to the tankful.

Watson Motor Co. on West Seventh Street receives 15 to 20 inquiries per month from customers interested in improving their gas mileage.

“People want to get rid of their big gas guzzlers for a Toyota, which they should have bought in the first place,” said salesman Don Tinsley. “Any Toyota gets great gas mileage,” he said, with his Prius topping the list at 61 miles per gallon.

“I sell those over the phone,” he said of the $23,791 car, “sight unseen.”

Bob Sellers, owner of Car-Co on North Prince Street, said sales have dropped significantly.

“Our sales have definitely been down,” said Sellers. “Compared to last year we are down 50 percent.” His lot includes a variety of cars, with the larger models barely gleaning a glance from customers, he said. “Everybody’s looking for gas savers.”

Functionality “is exactly the reason Chrysler, in affiliation with Mitsubishi, created the Liberty Diesel,” according to Jon Zorn, general manager of Bailey-Strebeck Jeep Mitsubishi. He said the SUV can go 500 miles between fill-ups.

“Performance and longevity. I can’t put in bold print, but they expect the life of the engine to last half a million miles,” Zorn said.

Other cars they offer can get 33 to 34 miles to the gallon, he added.

Gas prices are not expected to decrease any time soon. In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration, the forecast is for gas prices to peak in May of this year and remain high well into 2006, due to high crude oil prices and gasoline’s growing demand. More people are of driving age and driving longer distances, despite the cost of fuel.

AAA New Mexico spokeswoman Jeannie Chavez said last year’s trend was 10 weeks of record high prices that ended in May.

“A lot has to do with how oil and gas is distributed, supply and demand and the weather,” Chavez said.

“Sometimes, too,” she said, “people will drive less when gas prices are high so demand will decrease and prices will go down.”

Gas prices are over 28% higher than last year, with the national gas prices breaking the record high for 26 days in a row, New Mexico reaching a record high 34 days in a row.

• April 2005: $2.26
• April 2004: $1.67

Las Cruces:
• April 2005: $2.26
• April 2004: $1.69

Santa Fe (and surrounding):
• April 2005: $2.32
• April 2004: $1.79

State overall:
• April 2005: $2.28
• April 2004: $1.71

Nation overall:
• April 2005: $2.27
• April 2004: $1.77

Source: AAA New Mexico