"Sea change" in car buying habits under way?

Soaring gas price are fueling what may be a "sea change" in Americans' car-buying habits, according to CBS News Business and Economics Correspondent Rebecca Jarvis.

The price of a gallon of unleaded regular gas tops $4 in most parts of the country, up 30 cents last month alone. At the same time, new cars sales jumped 18 percent from April 2010.

Many people think car sales are rising despite the higher gas prices, but Jarvis says, "The reality is that car sales are actually rising because of higher gas prices - because all of these automakers, and the Detroit (Big) Three are a big part of this -- they are putting out more fuel-efficient cars, and those are the big sellers right now.

"If you went to the (just-concluded) New York Auto Show, you saw all of these fuel efficient cars -- among them, the Chevy Cruise, which is a General Motors car, is ... definitely selling big ... and General Motors saw its sales, of all the automakers, go up the most, by 27 percent in April."

SUV sales usually fall as gas prices climb but, Jarvis points out, "In this go-round, Americans may actually be changing their habits. What we've seen before, in 2008, when (gas) prices spiked to $4.11 (a gallon) in the summer of '08, we saw a lot of Americans cut back on their usage -- they thought, 'Never again,' but then they went out and bought gas guzzlers again. This go-round, it seems like we're actually seeing a sea change, and part of that is being led by the Detroit automakers.

"They had a better month in April than their foreign competitors. Some of that is due to the fact that Japanese automakers, like Toyota, for example, have faced serious (production) shutdowns (due to the March mega-earthquake and tsunami), and we're still seeing (the results of) that on the lots here in the United States. I've been talking to the dealerships, (they're) running short on Priuses, some of the Lexus cars are running short, and they expect to see more of those shortages. So, American carmakers have really taken the lead now."

This, even though incentives "have actually come down pretty significantly," Jarvis notes. "In April, incentives were about $2,118 (per vehicle). That's what you could get back in the cash back, in the low-rate financing offers. That was down $250 from March. So what you're seeing is the automakers don't have to give us customers as much money to get us to buy their cars."

And that, she added, may continue "because, essentially what you have here (is that) when there's more interest in buying cars, there's fewer cars sitting dormant on the lot, and the dealerships don't have as much of a necessity to push them out the door. We're willing to pay a higher price for them."

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