Gas prices are on the rise, and some analysts predict that U.S. drivers will pay $5 a gallon by summer. According to AutoTrader's New Car Insights Report, that's giving shoppers a big reason to look at smaller, fuel-efficient cars.
AutoTrader tracks consumer shopping behavior on its sales site, AutoTrader.com. The data from January reveals that of the 20 vehicles with the biggest month-over-month increases in viewership, nine were compacts and two were hybrids.
At the top of that list, we find the 2012 Buick Verano compact sedan, which drew almost twice the traffic -- 95.7% -- as it did in December 2011. Granted, the Verano is one of Buick's newer rides, so it stands to reason that it would attract more interest from consumers, but given the fuel-sipping tendencies of many others at the top of AutoTrader's list, it's probably no coincidence that the Verano earns a combined fuel economy of 25 mpg.
Rounding out the top five were the Subaru Impreza, Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Sonic, and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. All weigh in on the small side, and all score combined fuel economies of 25 mpgs or higher except the Mitsubishi, which rings in around 19 mpg.
But that's not the whole story
But although gas prices are climbing, and although fuel economy is now shoppers' #1 criteria when buying a new car, AutoTrader's most-viewed vehicles aren't especially fuel-efficient. The Ford F-150 came in at the top of the list, and no matter the configuration, its combined fuel economy never breaks 19 mpg.
The F-150 was followed by the Ford Mustang, Jeep Wrangler, Chevrolet Silverado, Chevrolet Camaro, Ram 1500, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Challenger, Ford F-250, and in the #10 spot, the Toyota Tacoma.
But even that doesn't paint a complete picture. Looking at that data, we might assume that the interest in smaller rides is an anomaly -- a spike fueled by curiosity about new models, not serious intention to buy.
However, if we look closely at AutoTrader's data, we find that interest in full-size trucks like the F-150 and Silverado is on the decline. In fact, it fell more sharply than in any other segment. Also on the decline: interest in luxury cars, luxury SUVs, and full-size SUVs.
Although shoppers are increasingly interested in smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles, those vehicles still lag in sales. Cars like the Verano have a long way to go before they gain the appeal of haulers like the F-150, which many Americans use for work, travel, and play.
That said, as the average fuel economy of new cars continues to climb -- thanks in part to new federal regulations -- the rides we consider gas-guzzlers today may give compacts a run for their money at the pump in just a few years' time.