Surprise! Yes, Fuel Efficiency (Still) Matters to Car Buyers

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2010 Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius

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What a shock! Who'd ever have thought it? Will wonders never cease?

Yes, yet another survey shows that fuel efficiency matters to car and truck buyers. And that more than half say their next vehicle will get better gas mileage than their current ride.

gas Prices

gas Prices

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2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

prototype 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, April 2010

prototype 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, April 2010

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Fuel efficiency: It matters

Capital One Auto Finance hired Braun Research to survey 800 adults last month by phone on their views about their next automobile purchase. The results? A full 53 percent of respondents expect their next car to be more fuel-efficient than their current vehicle.

Perhaps more remarkably, 55 percent say they would be "very" or "somewhat" likely to select a smaller vehicle than their current model when they next head to the auto dealer.

Electric cars coming

Only 4 percent of the respondents currently own an "alternative vehicle"--meaning a hybrid or plug-in electric car--but 78 percent expect such vehicles to be a permanent part of the auto landscape, not "just a passing fad."

One-third (34 percent) say their next vehicle is "somewhat" or "very" likely to be an alternative vehicle, and more than half (54 percent) expect to own such a vehicle at some point during their lifetimes.

Which means that the publicity around hybrids like the 2010 Toyota Prius, plus newer, more radical entries like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and 2011 Nissan Leaf, is starting to penetrate public awareness--even though 76 percent have never driven or ridden in such a car.

Forgive us if we're less than surprised by all this.

It's the price, stupid

As always, cost is the major barrier. "While consumers are showing significant interest in gas-alternative models, our survey suggests that pricing is holding many buyers back from purchasing one,"  said Sanjiv Yajnik, President of Capital One Auto Finance.

But unaware car buyers may be shooting themselves in the foot by not taking into account all of the components that affect car cost.

Consumers traditionally overemphasize the initial purchase price, and underweight the overall lifetime cost per mile, also known as total cost of ownership (TCO). Almost three-quarters (71 percent) of the respondents who intend to buy an alternative vehicle had not even calculated the value of the gasoline they would save over a conventional vehicle.

Many consumers also weren't aware of government tax credits and rebates that can cut the cost of clean diesels, plug-in electric cars, and hybrids from certain manufacturers. Four out of 10 consumers didn't know about the existence of those incentives.

Wildly optimistic

Right now, hybrids are seen as the ultimate in fuel efficiency. But 42 percent of respondents think one-quarter to one-half of the cars on the road will be hybrids or electrics, and 23 percent believe more than half will be alternative cars by 2020.

Those two-thirds of respondents are destined to be sorely disappointed, for they are far more optimistic than industry plans.

While the 25-percent estimate is at the high end of the accepted range for new-car sales in 2020, it fails to take into account the slow turnover of the U.S. vehicle fleet.

The average U.S. vehicle is now more than 10 years old, so it will be two decades or more before hybrids could make up a quarter of vehicles on the road.

[Capital One Auto Finance]

 
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