Majority of Americans shopping a smaller car, but wary of hybrids: The Yahoo! Autos Survey

A majority of Americans in the first Yahoo! Autos Survey say they're ready to buy a smaller car the next time they walk into a dealership, a sign of just how much concern over gas prices has reshaped our tastes. But they're sharply divided on whether a gasoline-electric hybrid car or truck will ever be worth the extra costs.

The online poll of 1,000 people found a majority were planning to buy a new car within the next three years, and two-thirds were expecting to do so in the next five years -- consistent with the move by many Americans to replace aging rides following the steep recession. Some 49% said they would either buy a smaller car or had already done so; another 9% said they'd do it if gas hit $4 a gallon. Only 4 percent said they wouldn't ever consider a smaller vehicle, while a slightly larger percentage said they'd only do so if gas prices soared above $5 a gallon.

Most forecasters expect those preferences to hold for the foreseeable future. Industry prognosticators at Polk Automotive note that subcompacts -- cars like the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa and Chevrolet Sonic -- rank as one of the fastest-growing segments in the industry. Part of that comes from fuel economy, but also from new models such as the Mini line, the Fiat 500 and others that don't penalize small-car buyers with low-rent interiors and a ride resembling a broken carnival attraction.


But while smaller vehicles generally get better fuel economy, customers aren't sure just how much more they'd be willing to pay for a hybrid car or truck. A majority — 55% — say they'd be willing to pay at least $1,000 more. Another 6% says they'd chip in $500 for one. But 38% say hybrids aren't worth an extra penny.

Given that the typical hybrid goes for at least $1,200 more than similar models, and in some cases carries a premium of several thousand dollars over gas-only varieties, it's little surprise that hybrids haven't gained much traction among American buyers even as gas touched $4 a gallon. Part of the challenge comes from more efficient gas engines which have made 40 mpg a standard for small cars and 30 mpg a requirement for midsize sedans, with no cost penalty. Hybrids remain about 2.5% of all new car sales, and the vast majority of those sales go to variations of the Toyota Prius. No automaker aside from Toyota has ever sold more than 100,000 hybrids a year in the United States -- and despite a few new models such as the updated Ford Fusion, there's no challenger to Toyota's sales crown on the horizon.

Over the next two days we'll be sharing more from the survey, including what Americans consider the highest-quality car brands and how the federal bailout of General Motors affected its standing with customers.