Fuel-efficient vehicles a hit amid high gas prices

FRESNO, Calif.

According to AAA, Fresno gas prices have gone up about 16-cents per gallon in the past week and now average $3.97.

In Merced the average price is $3.93 and in Visalia it's $3.98 a gallon.

That compares to a national average of $3.51.

Economists predict the national average could reach $4.25 a gallon by late April and nearly $5 by Memorial Day.

In addition, a new concern could make the situation worse: Iran has stopped oil exports to France and Britain as a pre-emptive strike for the European Union's tough new sanctions over its nuclear program.

Climbing gas prices are helping a very small segment of the auto industry - cars getting more than 40 miles per gallon.

At a Hyundai dealership, the sales staff is relying on a different kind of sticker shock.

Hyundai has four models that average 40 miles per gallon or better, and 40 seems to be the magic number, so the only problem is, keeping those cars in stock.

The purr of the Hyundai Veloster's engine may be muted, but the sign in the window is loud and clear.

The Veloster averages about 40 miles per gallon on the highway, and potential car buyers can hear it calling them.

"Manufacturers love to advertise that and when they do, they see a flock of people coming," said Jeff Bergman, general manager at Lithia Hyundai in north Fresno.

Gas prices are once again creeping above $4 a gallon, so fuel efficient cars are driving the auto industry -- on car lots, and on the web, where there's even a website called "Fuel Efficient Cars for Sale."

"I think it's in the top three considerations, you know?" said Rick Gaston, who was shopping for a fuel efficient car Monday. "The price and then the gas mileage. So then [gas mileage is] in the top two."

Buyers are really taking fuel efficiency seriously, and aiming for the best.

Compact cars averaging 40 miles per gallon or better saw sales increases of 24.3% in 2011, compared to a 7.9% increase for compact cars with less stellar mileage.

Overall, new car sales grew by 10%, so the market is clearly dashing toward 40.

That means buyers often ignore the compact Nissan Versa in favor of the Veloster, Accent and Elantra at the neighboring dealership.

"We do see folks coming over to the Hyundai lot a little more than we would with a 35-36 mpg vehicle," Bergman said. The super sales are mostly a blessing, but with one exception.

"Unfortunately, we don't have enough inventory to keep up with our sales because demand is quite high," Bergman said.

On Monday, Lithia has just four of the 40 miles per gallon vehicles on display.

There were a few in the back, and a lot more on order from the manufacturer, so they're hoping to keep up with demand.

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