Still Thirsty: U.S. Consumers Still Buying Gas Guzzlers

U.S. consumers bought vehicles with big, gas-guzzling engines at an unchanged rate in the first three months of the year despite rising gas prices, according to a survey released Monday.

In the first quarter, about 25 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States were equipped with with eight- cylinder engines, according to sales trends analyzed by the Power Information Network, a data tracking service of consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates.

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That market share level for V8s — typically the most powerful engines used in trucks and large sport utility vehicles — was unchanged from the average of 25 percent in the fourth quarter, according to the Power Information Network.

The market share of six- and four-cylinder engine-vehicles have also not budged in the face of higher gasoline prices, now above $3 per gallon in many U.S. markets, J.D. Power said.

Six-cylinder engines represented just over 40 percent of new-vehicle sales over the past nine months, while four- cylinder engines have accounted for just over 30 percent, the firm said.

If that trend holds, it would be positive news for General Motors Corp. (GM), which has staked its product strategy this year to the launch of a new line of SUVs, including the Tahoeand the Yukon, which run on V8 engines.

"So far, the perceived gas price increases have not had any discernible impact on new-vehicle buying patterns, at least with regard to the size of the engine," said Tom Libby, an industry analyst at the Power Information Network.

Despite fears of a consumer backlash against SUVs in the face of higher oil prices, few analysts expect U.S. drivers will defect in large numbers to smaller cars featuring four- cylinder engines this year.

Rather, most forecast gains for cross-over utility vehicles, which are built on car platforms, and even luxury sedans at the expense of the SUV market.

Those marginal shifts in demand are widely tracked since the overall U.S. auto market is expected to be flat at best this year at just under 17 million vehicles sold.

"Gas prices are certainly becoming a popular dinner and water cooler discussion topic, but consumers appear to be conditioned to prices at current levels," said Jeff Schuster, executive director of global forecasting at J.D. Power.

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