Consumers can expect to see plenty of fuel-efficient automobiles when the DFW Auto Show opens at 1 p.m. today at the Fort Worth Convention Center. The question is whether North Texans are all that eager to buy them.
Several local auto dealers say that even as interest in higher gas mileage increases each time gasoline prices shoot up, the North Texas area remains something of a truck and sport utility vehicle market.
"We're seeing our small-car business grow lately," said Rick Cantalini, managing partner at Vandergriff Chevrolet and Vandergriff Hyundai in Arlington. And manufacturers are introducing more fuel-efficient models that are gaining credibility in consumers' eyes, he says.
"Nothing replaces a Suburban or Tahoe," he said of Chevrolet's full-size SUVs. "Big families still need and want the room." That's a common refrain.
"I would say we definitely are still an SUV and truck market," said Will Churchill, owner at Frank Kent Motor Co., which has Cadillac and Honda dealerships, and sells the Fisker, a high-end all-electric performance sedan. "My sales rates of the most fuel-efficient vehicles are not up." But that's not to say area drivers are completely missing the fuel-efficiency trend.
One reason is that trucks themselves have made good improvements in fuel efficiency, said Jeremy Acevedo, analyst at Edmunds.com, the auto information group. They obviously can't match a compact sedan in mileage, but even small gains in a truck's EPA rating can be "a considerable benefit to consumers," Acevedo said.
For example, the Dodge Ram 1500 has gone from a combined city/highway EPA rating of 16 mpg in 2005 to 20 mpg in 2013, a 25 percent gain, Acevedo said. In the same time, the Ford F-150 went from 15 mpg to 19 mpg, he said
"The achievement may sound modest, but it's actually a 27 percent boost in fuel economy," he said of the Ford model.
And Edmunds.com's data supports the dealers' contention that North Texans favor larger vehicles. Large trucks account for 15.3 percent of North Texas sales, compared to 11 percent nationally.
Gasoline-electric hybrids accounted for 3.3 percent of sales in 2012's first nine months nationwide, but just 2.3 percent in North Texas. Compact cars, compact SUVs and compact trucks all sell less in North Texas.
In Churchill's view, Tarrant area drivers are just making an economic decision that's mostly based on the price of a gallon of gasoline. California drivers will make one decision when they see $4-plus prices at the pump, and North Texans will make another when they see this area's $3 average.
Still, the federal government recently mandated an increase in the fuel efficiency of new cars and trucks to 34.5 miles per gallon by 2016, and that grows to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
(Those mileage goals, incidentally, are based on a laboratory test that produces an estimate considerably higher than what drivers will actually experience. Experts say a vehicle meeting the 54.5 mpg standard will have a window sticker that advertises the EPA's estimated real-world experience. In this case, that's expected to be roughly 37 to 40 mpg, which still is much higher than today's average of 22 mpg. The standard also varies depending on the vehicle's size.)
The rising federal standards, along with changing consumer behavior based on spikes in gasoline prices in recent years, are producing more high-efficiency models from manufacturers.
Edmunds predicts that by 2015, there will be at least 43 vehicles with some kind of electric drive train or diesel engine. Edmunds expects these "alternative fuel" vehicles to rise from 3 percent of the market today to 5 percent that year.
At the DFW Auto Show in Fort Worth, consumers can expect to see a number of such vehicles. Ford is showing its Fusion Hybrid and the C-Max Hybrid, both of which use the combined gasoline/electric engine showing up in more manufacturers' lineups.
Not every high-efficiency model involves electricity. Chevrolet will show its Spark, a mini-car that's rated at 38 mpg highway.
It's the first year the show has been held in December. It previously was in the spring, but it got a new name and date after the separate Fort Worth and Dallas new car dealers associations merged in 2010. and decided to schedule each city's auto show at a different time of the year.
Jim Fuquay, 817-390-7552