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Tampa Bay area dealers struggle to sell SUVs

Tom Castriota, owner of Castriota Chevrolet in Hudson, is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve with a tour of duty in Baghdad under his belt.

So he's not one to shrivel in the face of an auto industry bloodbath set off by record-high gas prices. People just aren't buying the metal monsters — SUVs, vans, large pickups — that have dominated his lot on U.S. 19.

"The consumer is much more aware. They don't need a Suburban, Expedition, Sequoia or Nissan Armada," Castriota said. "We used to sell 65 percent trucks and 35 percent cars. Now we're starting to see 50-50."

It's a tough time to be a gas-guzzler — or a purveyor thereof. With record oil prices forcing consumers into economical rides, sales of large SUVs are down 24 percent in a year and large pickups aren't that far behind.

Used-car lots are so swamped with the out-of-fashion behemoths that trade-in values have collapsed by thousands of dollars over the past half year. Florida retailers like the giant AutoNation, which operates as AutoWay in the Tampa Bay area, are shipping some of their excess SUVs overseas, where they remain more a novelty than a nuisance.

"We're beefing up our car and crossover inventory and keeping a less robust supply of pickups and SUVs," AutoNation president Michael Maroone said. "All retailers are under tremendous pressure."

Much of the pressure is coming from within the industry. Witness this ad for the Tampa Honda Land dealership: "Get out of your GAS GUZZLER!" Or the St. Pete Jeep dealer offering $2.99-per-gallon gas with the purchase of an SUV.

Consumers initially sacrificed size for economy by shifting to small SUVs. That trend has stalled. Small SUV sales have dropped even further — 31 percent the past year — than those of their larger cousins.

It's not just gas that's sapping the former dominance of SUVs and large pickups. Tastes have shifted to crossover vehicles that combine the room of an SUV with the ride of a car. "People have been migrating to them for years," Maroone said.

And the depressed housing market has crushed sales of pickups used for work. "The builders that built 10 to 20 homes a year aren't building," Castriota said.

Dealers like Maroone and Castriota are placing faith in smaller cars and innovative fuel-sipping engines. AutoNation is playing up its "E-vehicles" and attaching green tags to connote superior fuel economy.

Chevy hopes to delivers its Volt electric plug-in car in 2010. It will be none too soon for Castriota, who's had to wait patiently as General Motors dribbles out its limited supply of hybrid cars.

"I sold a teacher a hybrid Malibu in March. She drives 12 miles to work. It's perfect for her. The gas engine doesn't turn on till you hit 40 mph," Castriota said. "She bought the first one. It won't be the last."

James Thorner can be reached at [email protected]

Malibu makes a statement

Chevrolet, which has a hybrid version of its popular Malibu, is keeping the heat on its competitors with its new high-end LTZ. It features a new six-speed automatic transmission mated with a four-cylinder engine. Estimated highway fuel economy: 32 miles per gallon, up from 30 mpg on the four-speed Malibu with a four-speed transmission. The equivalent four-cylinder Toyota Camry and Honda Accord models offer 31 mpg on the highway.
Associated Press

Tampa Bay area dealers struggle to sell SUVs 05/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 12:16pm]
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