Consumers are telling auto manufacturers they want fuel-efficient vehicles; they are reducing how much they drive and they will factor the price of petrol into decisions concerning both the timing and type of vehicles they purchase, according to results from a public opinion poll and forthcoming study by the Polk Centre for Automotive Studies.

"These consumer attitudes are well supported by Polk's registration information," said Lonnie Miller, Polk's director of industry analysis. "As expected, sales are down in the major gas-guzzling segments:  traditional large cars and full-size sport utility vehicles.  In May of this year, new retail registrations of these vehicles are down 27% from a year ago."

Between news accounts and driver reaction to prices paid at the pump, the effect of increased petrol prices is inescapable, Polk claims. Virtually all respondents (99%) nationwide have noticed the price of petrol rise over the past 12 months. Consumer awareness of petrol prices is high. Eighty-eight percent of respondents believe dependence on foreign oil has increased dramatically in the past five years.

Consumers recognize that they have choices when facing increasing fuel expenses. The easiest choice, driving less, is a potential solution for 59% of respondents. Hybrid cars are appealing to many people. The majority of respondents in the study (84%) said they would consider buying or leasing a hybrid car or truck. Consumers in the western region felt strongest on this issue, with 88% saying they would consider a hybrid, whereas only 74% of northeasterners agreed.

Switching to a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle is the obvious choice for many. "According to Polk's consumer loyalty information, we see that loyalty among owners of large cars and full-size SUVs has dropped more than that of any other vehicle segment over the past year," said Miller. "More consumers are opting out of these gas guzzlers for compact SUVs and midsize cars."

Even midsize SUV owners are "downsizing" their vehicles.  Defection rates from this segment to compact SUVs are 42% higher than those to the full-size SUVs.

Regional intentions

While rising fuel prices impact consumers nationwide, the study also notes regional and income trends.

More respondents in the Western region (61%) reported that fuel prices will affect their next vehicle choice, whereas Midwesterners are most likely to delay their next vehicle purchase. Regarding vehicle choice and purchase timing, northeasterners were consistently least likely to change their behaviour.

Not surprisingly, income level also makes a difference in how consumers respond to rising fuel costs.

"Lower income households will bear more than their share of the rising prices' impact. Seventy-six percent of lower income respondents reported that they will drive less compared to 49% of higher income households," said Martini.

Respondents with lower incomes were about 50% more likely to be actively looking to change their vehicle to a more fuel-efficient model than their higher income counterparts. They were also nearly 40% more likely to delay their next vehicle purchase if petrol prices continue to rise.

Five hundred vehicle owners, age 21 and older from across the US, participated in the study.

Automakers and dealers say petrol price rises not hurting yet