DETROIT (Reuters) -- Fire marshal Karen Alward thought of her 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe as a "resort on wheels" until gasoline prices changed her attitude toward the hulking SUV.
Tired of paying $80 to $100 to fill the tank, the 34-year-old Connecticut resident traded in the SUV this month for a gas-sipping Toyota Prius.
"I loved the Tahoe, but not the gas prices that came with it," she said.
The rising cost of gasoline coupled with maintenance on aging cars and trucks is pushing consumers to a place many of them have avoided for five years: a new car dealership.
Being helped by higher gas prices is a twist for an industry that was pummeled by a spike in fuel prices in the summer of 2008.
And while greater confidence in the U.S. economic recovery is helping to spur demand for new cars and trucks, analysts, dealers and auto industry executives point to another factor: Americans' need to swap older vehicles for more fuel-efficient ones.
"For folks who are kind of on the fence, it probably tilts them more to buy," Citi analyst Itay Michaeli said of higher gas prices.
Auto sales have outpaced even the most optimistic estimates, gaining 16 percent in February in their best showing in four years.
So far this year, fuel prices have risen about 17.5 percent to a national average of $3.83. In February 2011, it cost about $84 to fill the tank of a Ford Motor Co. F-150 pickup truck, the best-selling vehicle in the United States. Last week, it cost almost $100.
But big vehicles are not the only gas guzzlers. Older cars have big thirsts for gasoline, and the average age of vehicles on the road is up to a record 10.8 years, according to Polk Automotive.
Morgan Stanley analysts estimate that these vehicles get an average 18 miles per gallon. At around 14 miles per gallon in the city, the economics of the Tahoe did not make sense for Alward, who drives more than 350 miles a week for her daughter's softball practice.
While not everyone would want to trade an SUV, car or truck for a hybrid like the Prius, replacing it with a new or newer vehicle could mean big fuel savings.
From 2002 to 2011, the average fuel economy of vehicles sold in the United States improved 20 percent to 23.2 mpg from 19.4, according to consumer research firm Edmunds.com. In that time, average fuel prices more than doubled to $3.52 a gallon, government statistics show.
The fuel economy of 2012 models is more than 16 percent higher than in 2008, Edmunds.com said.