Fuel economy is about even with reliability as the top factors that people consider when buying a vehicle, according to a nationwide poll taken for Consumer Reports magazine.

The telephone survey, taken Aug. 3-7 as gasoline prices remained around $3 per gallon, showed that 27 percent of likely vehicle buyers ranked gas mileage as the top factor in an automobile purchase.

Reliability was the top factor for 25 percent, followed by purchase price for 14 percent and safety features among 12 percent, according to the poll taken by Opinion Research Corp. Five percent said manufacturer and dealer incentives are the top factor in an auto purchase, and 3 percent said styling.

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Consumer Reports funded the poll, which has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

On the surface, the poll results appear to indicate further trouble for the Big Three domestic auto manufacturers, which rely more on truck and sport utility vehicle sales for their profits than their foreign-based competitors. Truck and SUV sales were down for the first seven months of the year compared with the same period in 2005, while car sales were up.

But Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst at Global Insight Inc., said her company's research shows consumers often say one thing when polled and then do something else when it comes time to make a purchase.

Americans, she said, are loath to give up the storage space and seating of an SUV and switch to a sedan. She said she thinks the shift to car-based crossover vehicles, which have the same seating and storage as SUVs but are more fuel efficient, will continue.

"It's kind of difficult to get out of an SUV/crossover vehicle and go back to a sedan," she said. "When push comes to shove, it's tough to give up an SUV, especially because there are crossovers now that do get better gas mileage."

The survey also showed that incentives such as rebates and free gasoline have been used so often by manufacturers that consumers look past them to other factors, said Rob Gentile, director of Consumer Reports' car information products.

The poll was the magazine's first of this size dealing with auto purchases, Gentile said. Past research has shown gas mileage as an important factor in buying decisions, but it hasn't ranked as high, he said.

"I think now what you're starting to see obviously is it's becoming more and more significant as gasoline prices have risen in the past year or so," Gentile said.

Princeton, N.J.-based Opinion Research randomly called 1,000 people at least 18 years old and surveyed 526 people who said they were considering a vehicle purchase in the next two years.

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