DETROIT Automakers are working as fast as they can to meet a new consumer landscape: Buyers want not just fuel-efficient cars but also the same amenities they had in their hulking SUVs.
It's a change from how most cars have been set up in the U.S. Smaller engines meant smaller sticker prices. Automakers put four-cylinder engines in their bare-bones models. If you wanted a moon roof, leather seats or a navigation system, you also got a bigger engine under the hood.
"A lot of it had to do with price points," says Eric Peterson, communications manager for Ford Motor's crossovers. Buyers who spent more wanted more power. "Now, there's more of a shift in consumer mind-set that we're reacting to. Consumers are saying, 'I want fuel efficiency, and I want all these options as well.'"
That's why the new Ford Escape will offer four-cylinder versions with every level of interior. Ford already has seen buyers jump at decked-out Fusions with the four rather than the V-6 and expects that to continue.
June sales were constrained because few automakers had enough cars that shoppers really want: well-appointed but with gas-sipping engines. "I'm sure we're missing some business because we don't have exactly the configuration the consumer is looking for and adequate stock to satisfy" the demand, says Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales.
If gas prices stay high and demand remains strong for smaller engines, auto executives say the U.S. market will start looking more like Europe's, where what is considered a small car here is seen as a family sedan.
"People are starting to look at their four-cylinder cars like they did their luxury cars, with leather seats and creature comforts," says Mike DiGiovanni, General Motors' executive director of global market analysis. "Think about this: The price of fuel in Europe is $7 a gallon, and the industry has survived nicely with smaller vehicles that are loaded up."
Jesse Toprak, director of industry analysis for consumer Web site Edmunds.com, says the Honda Civic, with sales up 17.9 percent through the first half of the year, and the Fusion, up 11.7 percent, offer such models. Moreover, transaction data collected by Edmunds show both are selling at or near sticker price, while many other models need heavy incentives to sell.
"That's another reason for automakers to put more emphasis on this," he says. "They are able to make some money on these cars."