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Many Americans Ready to Switch to More Fuel-Efficient Cars

Gasoline prices in the United States are the highest ever. Over the past few weeks, a gas prices are fluctuating around an average of $2.24 nationwide. Industry analysts say this is the result of a rise in crude oil prices, higher refining costs and greater demand.

American consumers are not happy about all this. Some drivers are ready to switch from gas guzzling vehicles to more fuel-efficient cars.

More than half of all new cars sold in the United States are sport utility vehicles, with big gas-guzzling engines. As gas prices soar, Mike Drabant feels the pinch in his wallet. He drives a 1999 Nissan Pathfinder SUV, which he bought used in 2001. "I love the car, but it is not the most fuel efficient," he says, adding that it costs him $35 to fill the tank, which he does about once a week. "My next car will not be an SUV," Mr. Drabant says. "It will be something more fuel-efficient because I am looking to move into the city. Gas is even more expensive and you don't get as good as gas mileage in the city. So that's something that is more of a concern."

Ana Marie Trotman lives in Pennsylvania close to the New Jersey border. She drives a midsize 1989 Honda Acura and plans her trips so she can buy gas in New Jersey, because it is cheaper there. "Recently it cost me $27 to fill it up," she says. "My next car will be fuel efficient."

A lot of Americans feel the same way according to a new survey released by the Civil Society Institute. The poll finds that high gasoline prices and increasing dependency on Middle East oil are the biggest factors behind the push for the interest in more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"Two out of three Americans agree that it is patriotic to buy a fuel efficient vehicle that uses less gasoline and therefore requires this country to import less oil from the Middle East," says Graham Hueber, an analyst for Opinion Research Corporation, the group that produced the poll. He adds that 26 percent of Americans have already purchased a more fuel-efficient vehicle and 24 percent are thinking of doing so.

Mr. Hueber says the responses to the poll reflect the views of Americans of all stripes - from NASCAR racing fans to technophiles. But Charles Torrito, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says the poll does not reflect what is actually selling in the showroom. "In 2004 more than 58 percent of all vehicles sold in the United States were minivans, pickups, SUVs and vans," he says. "And in all 50 states consumers purchased more light trucks than passenger cars in the year 2004."

Environmentalists have called on carmakers to improve their vehicles' fuel efficiency, and nine out of 10 people questioned by Opinion Research agreed on the importance of government action to mandate that. But it's a move Charles Torrito says the automotive industry firmly opposes.

"The fundamental problem with fuel economy regulations," he says, "is that they don't take into account what the consumer purchases. By setting an arbitrary economy number it makes it very difficult for manufacturers to produce the vehicles that consumers want most."

The U.S. Congress has also rejected higher fuel economy standards. But fuel economy can be an important marketing tool, according to John DeCicco, an automotive analyst for the group Environmental Defense. He says the U.S. auto industry is making a mistake by ignoring it.

"That is a very important message to both the automaker leadership as well as to the politicians," he says, "because the barrier of consumer disinterest that they have held up so often, that kind of barrier is falling away. And what that means is that there are some opportunities for leadership here perhaps that are not being seen and could be seen as really make a difference for the country."

It's likely that consumer interest in fuel-efficient vehicles will continue to grow, as the price of gas is expected to increase during the summer months, when Americans typically drive the most. How that plays out on the assembly line and in the showroom remains to be seen.