Fuel-efficient Car Makes 3 Autos in the Driveway

By: Anthony Fontanelle

With gas prices rising above $3 a gallon nationwide, many drivers are pushed to purchasing small cars. But hundreds of thousands of owners are not giving up anything to downsize. Instead, they opt to add fuel-efficient cars to their driveways, parked alongside their SUV or pickup.

In households that own a small car, the family fleet is close to an average of three vehicles, according to CNW Marketing Research, which tracks industry trends. These growing fleets suggest an approach to conservation that is more addition than subtraction. "Small cars are like a fashion statement," said Art Spinella, the president of CNW Marketing. CNW data also showed that more than 500,000 were sold last year as second or third cars in a household for three small cars, the Toyota Prius and Corolla and the Honda Civic.

Ken Collinsworth purchased a Toyota Yaris last month for his daughter to take to college this fall. But with gasoline price close to $4 a gallon near his home in Paso Robles, Calif., Collinsworth has been forced to driving the Yaris instead of his BMW X5 SUV and his GMC Sierra pickup. "I steal it from her every chance I get," said Collinsworth, 53, who added that he would like to get another Yaris.

In another era, he might be pitied for parking one of his luxury cars to drive around in a gas saver. But unlike small cars introduced in the past, which had limited creature comforts, the latest bunch, including the Yaris, Nissan Versa, and the Honda Fit, can be bought with many of the same sought-after options as their bigger siblings, like navigation screens or iPod connections.

"It is a fundamental change," Spinella said. "People are willing to buy small cars because they are more sophisticated." And buyers appear willing to pay a lot for them. In 1990, buyers stuck to the low end of the scale when they bought a small car, CNW's data showed. More than three-quarters opted for basic no-frills models, sometimes even forgoing a radio to keep the price down.

Now, ninety percent of purchasers are buying fully loaded small cars, the data revealed. "You look at these cars, and they have 16-inch wheels and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a high-quality interior," said A. Andrew Shapiro, a partner in the Casesa Shapiro Group, an auto industry investment and advisory firm. "They aren't econoboxes, they're just smaller cars."

Pierre Tremblay, 67, of Howell, Mich., purchased a Toyota Prius this month because driving his Dodge Ram pickup 40 miles round-trip to work was costing so much. So far the Prius is getting 55 miles per gallon, compared with 13 for the truck. "I can go to work now, back and forth, on less than a gallon. Before it was at least three," said Tremblay, a maintenance manager for a cement company.

With regular unleaded gas averaging $3.53 a gallon in Michigan this week, according to AAA, that is a savings of over $8 every workday. But Tremblay was not ready to get rid of his pickup, which is used to haul a camping trailer. The and accessories as well as tempting huge luxury vehicles could not change his mind.

Americans have spent $20 billion more on gasoline so far this year compared with 2006, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. "From a dollars-and-cents point of view, it doesn't make sense," said Jesse Toprak, the director of industry analysis for Edmunds.com, a Web site that offers car-buying advice. "There's no way you're going to drive it enough to justify the purchase, so it's more of a psychological decision."

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