After one of the biggest two-week jumps in gasoline prices on record, fuel economy has rocketed to the top of buyers' minds. But this time -- unlike the last gasoline price spike in 2008 -- the auto industry feels better positioned to cope.
Showroom sentiment, in light of turmoil in North Africa and the Mideast, is shifting:
-- About two-thirds of shoppers are looking harder at smaller or more fuel-efficient rides than they were just a month ago, according to an Automotive News survey last week of more than 300 dealers.
-- February's U.S. sales numbers showed a modest shift from big, powerful vehicles to small cars and crossovers with small engines.
-- Marc Hellman at Bob McDorman Chevrolet near Columbus, Ohio, says "a lot more" people are looking at cars than before.
-- Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. sold more of the Prius hybrid last month than in any previous February.
General Motors and Ford are staying in the game -- which wasn't the case when they had aging, uncompetitive small cars in 2008. But the shift in mix will pinch profits.
So, unlike the last gasoline-price shock in 2008, Chicken Little has been kept at bay -- for now.
Because their lineups are better balanced now than at the time of the 2008 oil spike, most dealers aren't juggling their inventory mix.
Just 17 percent of dealers surveyed said they have trimmed their orders for pickups. Only a third are ordering more small cars. That's because dealers already have vehicles on their lots to satisfy fuel economy-conscious shoppers.
Many automakers believe that the work they've done since the last big price surge, and in anticipation of higher government fuel-economy standards, leaves them better prepared this time, with stables of more competitive small cars and crossovers.
GM, Ford, Hyundai and Honda are among the automakers launching new or redesigned small cars just in time to benefit from renewed buyers' interest.
"We're not doing anything differently today" in response to higher fuel prices, said George Pipas, Ford's chief sales analyst. Ford will have two recently redesigned cars rated at 40 mpg in highway driving when the Focus arrives this spring. "That is because we started doing things a whole lot differently three years ago," Pipas said.