Is gas driving car sales?

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By Amy Ryffel-Kragh

With gasoline prices climbing higher, with no end in sight, car dealerships around the country and the Corridor are seeing a change in car buying priorities. Customers are trading gas-guzzling land yachts for smaller vehicles with better gas mileage.

We burned a bit of $4 a gallon gas and visited new car dealers who had time to talk, in the area and neighboring Citrus County.

Honda of Ocala

Although the small Honda Fit has been out for two years, it is hard to keep in stock. “They’re usually sold before they get here,” said Doug Prendergast, sales manager for Honda of Ocala. The Fit starts around $15,000, gets 28 miles per gallon around town and 34 mpg on the highway, according to the dealer’s Web site.

Even with the lagging economy, the dealership is still selling vehicles. John Simms, senior sales consultant, is having a better year than last. Simms sold 190 vehicles for the entire 2007 year, but he has already moved 128 this year.

The top selling new vehicles for the dealership have been the Honda Civic, Fit, and CRV, which is a small sport utility vehicle.

The Civic DX with automatic transmission starts at $15,810, gets 26 mpg city and 34 on the highway. The Civic also comes in a hybrid version.

Honda’s smallest SUV, the four-cylinder CRV, has a sticker price of $20,700 for the 2-wheel-drive LX model. It is estimated to get 20 city, 27 highway.

In addition to specials that Honda of Ocala is currently running, Prendergast said everything on the lot is discounted and consumers would get “better than normal discounts,” due to the dealership being under construction.

DeLuca Toyota

Sales manager Mark Dorey said the dealership is selling a lot of the Toyota Corolla, Camry and Yaris models. But for those hoping to drive off the lot in a Prius Hybrid, they are out of luck.

Dorey said he only had a few Prius models on the lot at any given time before gas prices soared. Now there is a two-month wait for the hybrid which gets around 48 city and 45 highway. Manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for the base model is $22,215.

The 2008 Yaris has a MSRP of $12,265 for the base model, according to the DeLuca Toyota Web site. The Yaris gets about 29/35.

DeLuca Toyota also has the 2009 manual transmission Corolla in stock, which has a base model sticker price of $15,250 and gets an estimated 26/35. For those who still need a larger vehicle, the Toyota Highlander is an option. The hybrid model gets about 27/25 and starts at $38,000.

Although Toyota Corporation is down five percent from last year, DeLuca Toyota sales are up six percent for the year.

Jenkins Acura

Just like the every other dealership around the country, Jenkins Acura has been receiving its fair share of large vehicle trade-ins. “We have had a big influx of large SUVs,” said Rick Migliaccio, Internet sales manager for Jenkins.

Expedition, Yukon, and Denali are just a few models of V-8 powered vehicles that Acura has seen come in as trades. “They’re pretty pricey vehicles,” he said.

Since the market has collapsed on large vehicles many consumers find their full-size SUV has gone down in value. And owners around the country are faced with the possibility of a dealer not taking their gas-guzzler. “That’s tough for the consumer,” he said.

With gas prices steadily rising Jenkins Acura has been selling more of its new sedans and smaller SUVs. The four-cylinder TSX, which is Acura’s smallest vehicle, gets about 21/30 and it has been redesigned for 2009.

“It’s a high performance four-cylinder and it’s a really popular car,” he said. It has a base price of $28,860.

The Acura RDX, which is a small SUV, is a turbo-charged four-cylinder. The price starts at $33,910 and it gets 17 city, 22 highway.

But there are still people who need a large vehicle. In the wake of drivers trading their big SUVs, those who want them are getting them for less. “You can pick one up for a good deal,” Migliaccio said.

For example, a 2007 Ford Expedition-Eddie Bauer Edition, with 33,000 miles, sits on Acura’s lot priced at $22,900. The suggested retail value of the vehicle is $27,600, according to Migliaccio.

Ocala Lincoln Mercury

Skip Linderman, general sales manager, said business is about the same as last year. Although they have specials on new products, used cars are selling better at the dealership.

But some consumers still want a new car.

The 2008 four-cylinder Mercury Mariner starts at $21,155 and gets 20 city, 26 highway. Although the Mariner does come in a hybrid, Ocala Lincoln Mercury does not have any in stock.

The cheapest Lincoln is the MKZ, which starts at $30,790. The six-cylinder version gets 18/28. The MKX starts at $35,605 and gets 16/24.

Ocala Nissan Mitsubishi

The dealership has sold the same or more vehicles this year versus last, but people have been buying more used than new. Of those who are buying new vehicles many are choosing the Nissan Altima more than the Sentra or the Versa, which are smaller than the Altima.

John McLeod, a sales manager at Ocala Nissan and Ocala Mitsubishi, said with the Altima the customer still gets good gas mileage and it has more room than the two smaller models.

An example is the four-cylinder 2008 Altima, which gets about 23/31 and costs $20,470 for the base model. For a six-cylinder 2008 Altima CVT SE starts at around $24,970 and gets 19 city, 26 highway.

The 2008 Nissan Versa has a MSRP of $13,680 for the base model and gets good gas mileage at an estimated 24/32. While a 2008 Nissan Sentra CVT 2.0 gets about 25/33 and costs $16,040 for the base model.

In addition, McLeod said the Mitsubishi Lancer is their best selling new vehicle for the brand. For instance, the 2009 Lancer ES CVT has a base price of $17,765 and gets 27/34. The dealership is also offering specials on some of its new vehicles.

Time for a Trade

Vicki McBride of Silver Springs Shores bought a shiny new Toyota Tacoma in December 2007. In June 2008 she was trading it in.

McBride found herself at Ocala Nissan Mitsubishi trading a 16 to 18 mpg truck for a new 2007 Mitsubishi Eclipse, which gets 24 city, 30 highway.

She traded her truck because of rising gas prices and wanted something “more economical.” McBride said, “I liked the truck” but she knew gas was only going to keep going up.

Crystal Automotive

Steve Farrell, general sales manager for Crystal Automotive in Citrus County, said new and used vehicles are selling about the same. But, smaller models are definitely selling better.

Farrell, who is the manager of Crystal Nissan, Chevrolet, and Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep dealerships, said the new Dodge Journey is selling well. The dealer “can’t keep them in stock,” he said.

The 2009 four-cylinder Dodge Journey costs about $19,000 and gets 19 city, 25 highway. The SUV also comes with a six-cylinder.

Chevrolet’s Malibu, Impala and HHR models are selling well also. The HHR, which is an SUV, gets 21/30 and starts around $17,000 with manual transmission.

The four-cylinder Jeep Patriot gets 23/27 and costs around $17,000. Nissan’s Altima and Frontier models have been selling well.

But for those consumers, who still need a truck, now is a good time to buy. There are a lot of rebates on new ones.

Love Chevrolet, Honda

Although sales have been slower than last year Steve Miller, general sales manager for Love Chevrolet, is optimistic. He said the dealership had an upward swing in May.

New vehicles like the Impala, Malibu and six-cylinder SUV Equinox are the models that have been selling on the Chevrolet lot. The 2008 four-cylinder Malibu gets about 22 city, 30 highway and sells for about $20,000.

For those who like a six-cylinder, the 2008 Impala gets 18/26 and costs around $22,000.

Over at Love Honda, general sales manager Frank DeSomma said the dealership is up 26 percent from last year and set an all-time sales record in May. He said the Honda Accord, Civic and CRV models have been selling the best. Love does not currently have the Honda Fit in stock.

Contact Amy Ryffel-Kragh at 854-3986 or e-mail akragh@newsrlsmc.com.