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'Gas guzzlers' in fashion when fuel prices drop, study shows

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Posted at 8:45 AM, Mar 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-03 13:18:39-05

The automotive market is nothing if not opportunistic.

A new study of 27 million used vehicle sales from the past two years examined links between gas prices and car buying habits, finding that shoppers aren't oblivious.

The report, from automotive research website iSeeCars.com, found moderate links between sales of used trucks and passenger cars at periods when gas prices were lower from 2012 to 2014. The firm also found a surprising lack of correlation between high fuel prices and hybrid car sales.

"For every dollar that the average gas price decreased, monthly truck sales increased by about two percent," according to iSeeCars' analysis.

The study found that when gas prices averaged $2.90 per gallon, pickup-truck sales accounted for about 11.5 percent of all used vehicle sales. When fuel prices rose to $3.90 per gallon, truck sales represented about 9.5 percent. The link was almost identical among used passenger car sales.

The company's researchers called those findings, "not surprising." But they were taken aback by the apparent fact that used hybrid car sales didn't seem to rise when pump prices were soaring.

Their research found monthly hybrid car sales stayed mostly flat — around 2 percent of the total market — regardless of fuel prices. In fact, hybrid sales actually dipped slightly when gas prices peaked. ISeeCars' report surmised this was likely because "hybrid car buyers are choosing to buy these vehicles based on other factors beyond just gas prices."

There also was not a strong correlation apparent between SUV sales and fuel prices.

Overall, consumers did seem to pay attention to fuel prices when they shopped for used vehicles, according to the findings. Sales of fuel-efficient vehicles — ones that averaged 20 to 26 miles per gallon — rose steadily as gas prices increased. When the national average was $2.70 per gallon, fuel-efficient cars made up about 37.5 percent of the used car market, whereas when prices were $3.90 per gallon, they made up about 42 percent of sales.

"When consumers aren't buying so-called 'gas guzzlers,' they seem to shift toward slightly more fueld-efficient vehicles only — not toward the vehicles with a substantial improvement in fuel efficiency," said iSeeCars CEO Phong Ly.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.