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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Fuel-efficient vehicle sales increase in April

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post

Ford Motor Co. said yesterday that its April sales fell 6.7 percent, but sales of the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV, shown at a dealership in Menlo Park, Calif., doubled in April from the previous month.

PAUL SAKUMA | Associated Press

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WASHINGTON Consumers reacted sharply to rising gasoline prices last month and turned away from large sport utility vehicles and other trucks in favor of small cars and gas-electric hybrid vehicles.

Ford Motor Co. said sales of its two hybrid models the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner more than doubled in April from the previous month, while sales of larger SUVs and pickup trucks tumbled. Toyota Motor Co. said it couldn't produce its Prius hybrid fast enough to keep up with demand.

Consumers also showed a growing appetite for subcompact cars, including tiny new entries such as the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. James Press, Toyota's U.S. president, said soaring oil prices were reminding automakers "how close to the cliff we're living."

Energy concerns are causing many car buyers to go green. Wally Kulesza, a 44-year-old father of four in Bethesda, Md., bought an Escape hybrid last week. He said the SUV has been getting about 30 miles per gallon, compared with the 12 mpg he gets in other SUVs he owns.

"I don't think of myself as an environmentalist. I think of myself as someone who is concerned," Kulesza said. "I look at it in the same way as when recycling first started. If everybody does a little bit, it all adds up."

Overall, industry sales of new cars and light trucks in the U.S. fell 3.7 percent in April from a year earlier, according to Autodata Corp. Cars, which had been slipping as a percentage of the overall market, are slowly regaining ground. Last April, cars accounted for 47.4 percent of the total market; this month their share rose to 49 percent.

In a worrisome sign for Detroit, pickup truck sales stalled at Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge brand. Dodge Ram sales were down 15 percent. Ford said F-Series sales declined 9 percent and blamed higher gas prices.

The pickup truck market is considered the last stronghold of Detroit's profits, and sales recently have been steady in contrast to those of large SUVs. Slumping demand for large SUVs has destabilized Detroit automakers.

In April, sales at General Motors Corp. fell 11 percent, while Ford's total sales declined 6.7 percent. The U.S. brands of DaimlerChrysler reported an 8 percent sales drop. But the automaker's Dodge Caliber, the replacement for the Neon small car, sold well last month.