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Higher gas prices, but Americans are buying more SUV's

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - As gas prices across the U.S. quickly approach $3 a gallon--the New York State average is already there, according to the AAA--conventional wisdom would call for switching from sport utility vehicles (SUV's) to smaller cars.

But in Detroit, the exact opposite seems to be happening:  U.S. automakers are cranking out the SUV's and trucks for a number of reasons--not the least of which is the aging baby boomer generation.

Car designers are finding older drivers want something they can get in and out of easily, so they are building larger vehicles that are more fuel efficient. 

Auto industry expert Art Wheaton of the Worker Institute at Cornell says American automakers are saying goodbye to the tiny economical cars that sip gas, in favor of the larger vehicles, such as SUV's, small pickups, and crossover vehicles.

"Just small cars in general are not doing well. The tiny cars they were making, the subcompacts and the compacts are not doing well and the demand has been soft."

Ford has announced that it is dropping most of its sedans--except for a Focus crossover utility vehicle, and its Mustang, in favor of SUV's such as the Explorer and Escape.

The carmaker has previously announced its plans to bring back the Bronco and Ranger pickup by the end of this year.

Wheaton said U.S. automakers have figured out ways of making the SUV not-so-big, "It is typically built on a truck platform, which got very poor fuel economy.  Now they are based on a car chassis, or a car platform, and they get much closer to the same fuel economy as the car it replaced."

What does this reconfiguration mean to Western New York's big automotive plants? Wheaton said the GM Powertrain complex in the Town of Tonawanda should be okay--with conditions.

"If they are still making the truck and SUV engines, the engine plant should still be there hiring people, or at least keeping who they have."

At Ford's Woodlawn Stamping Plant, Wheaton pointed out, many of the parts turned out by the Hamburg factory are going into larger vehicles.

"A lot of it goes up the road to Canada for the plant that makes the Ford Flex and some of the other vehicles. They are still going to make  crossover utility vehicles in Canada, so that should help."

Ironically Wheaton is convinced the best passenger car for moving the most people is the minivan, which gave rise to the term "soccer mom"--an icon of the boomer generation.

But now Wheaton says, the boomers don't need the minivans anymore, and the millenials don't want to be seen driving the same kind of car as their parents. 


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