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High gas prices tarnish SUV's appeal

Sales for large models fell 15 percent from a year ago.

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Could the ultimate soccer-mom icon really be on its way out?

Reports of falling sales for the behemoths of the road - those Excursions, Suburbans, and Yukons that regularly take up two parking spots at the mall and incur the wrath of the Honda Civic drivers who trail in their wake - have fueled speculation that Americans may finally be shifting away from the biggest-is-best mentality that has long been their car-buying mantra.

Whether because of $2.50-a-gallon gas sticker shock or just shifting style trends, slightly smaller and more maneuverable seems to be the fashion. In April, sales on large SUVs fell 15 percent from the same period a year ago, according to Autodata Corp. Ford Expeditions were off 34 percent, and Hummer H2s and Chevy Suburbans were down 21 percent.

Arianna Huffington and other Hummer haters shouldn't celebrate yet. SUVs still account for 25 to 30 percent of all vehicles sold in the US. Even the sluggish sales on the supersized models may be more an indication of saturated markets or postponed buying rather than an actual loss of consumer interest.

But, at least for the moment, America seems to be entering an uncharacteristic period of downsizing.

"Excursion buyers are going to Expeditions. Expedition buyers are going to Explorers. Explorer buyers are going to Escapes," says Jim Hossack, a consultant at AutoPacific, a market research company in Tustin, Calif. The Escape - one of Ford's smallest and most "car-like" of SUVs - is up 49 percent.

Still, Mr. Hossack and others caution that the April sales slump has hardly been sustained long enough to constitute a trend, And despite the rising prices at the pump, gas efficiency is still not the way most car buyers make a decision.

"They want safety - in an SUV they sit up high, have better visibility, and feel more secure," he says. "And they want power and performance. People [are] spending $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000 for a vehicle, and they want to feel good in it."


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