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More people are looking for hybrid or electric cars — but there aren't many options

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

With gasoline prices now topping more than $4 a gallon, many drivers are looking for vehicles that will go further on a gallon of gas or vehicles that don't use gasoline at all. That is a shift from a year ago, when gas-gobbling pickup trucks and SUVs accounted for more than three-quarters of all vehicles sold. Shoppers looking for more fuel efficiency might not find much to choose from, though, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Laurie Silvia (ph) needs a new car. Her 2008 Ford Explorer is showing its age, and filling its 22-gallon gas tank is a drain on her wallet. Silvia likes the feel of the Explorer, though. It holds the tools and plants she needs as a landscaper. And when she's finished with work, she can take her stand-up paddle board to the nearby beach in Rhode Island.

LAURIE SILVIA: I just like the feeling of something big and heavy, and it helps me feel safer to be up really high and surrounded by a good amount of metal. I come from a family of small women, and they've all driven enormous cars.

HORSLEY: Silvia would like to buy a hybrid SUV that gets better gas mileage, but not at today's prices.

SILVIA: Right now, I don't feel like I can afford one, even though I would like to.

HORSLEY: Zoe Wise (ph) has also been frustrated in her search for a car in Alaska. Right now, wise and her husband are sharing a 16-year-old Mazda.

ZOE WISE: He will drive me to work in the morning, drop me off. And then I'll drop him off at work after I get off work. Which is kind of ridiculous, too, because with the cost of gas right now, we're going through a lot more gas because we're spending time driving each other to and from work.

HORSLEY: With gasoline in Anchorage this week selling for 4.69 a gallon, Wise says she's giving more weight to her husband's desire for an electric car.

WISE: I always thought, like, that's a little bit of a luxury. I don't know if that's something that we actually need to get. But now we're looking at it a little bit more seriously.

HORSLEY: A lot of car buyers are looking more seriously at fuel efficiency since Russia's invasion of Ukraine pushed gas prices to a record high this month. Pat Ryan runs the car buying app CoPilot, which allows him to track what car shoppers are looking for and what dealers are offering.

PAT RYAN: I'd say we're seeing both sides of the dance between consumer and dealer right now.

HORSLEY: That dance is a little out of step. There's suddenly a lot more demand for electric cars, hybrids and small gasoline-powered vehicles, but there aren't many available. Ryan says the price of used Teslas jumped $2,000 in a single week to $63,000. Used SUVs, on the other hand, have been marked down over $800 in the last month.

RYAN: They're the famous hundred dollar to fill up kind of vehicles, right? I think dealers are feeling the pressure on those. They're worried about having these big gas guzzlers on the lot.

HORSLEY: Ryan says, so far, there hasn't been a similar discount on pickup trucks, which are still in high demand. Pete Swenson, who's senior vice president for a Minnesota chain of car dealerships, notes both pickups and SUVs get better gas mileage than they used to. But he says dealers are on the lookout for any big shift in what buyers want.

PETE SWENSON: You know, in previous times when gas spiked, people reacted quickly. I mean, I've never seen so many people trade out of their trucks and big SUVs for cars. And then when gas went back down, it seems like they switched back.

HORSLEY: Electric cars were all the buzz at the National Automobile Dealers show in Las Vegas earlier this month, but supplies are limited, prices are relatively high, and Swenson says a lot of would-be customers are still in wait-and-see mode. Marline Dempster (ph) was looking to replace her old car last month when her neighbor got a new Tesla. She took one drive in her neighbor's car and ordered her own Tesla that same day.

MARLINE DEMPSTER: Oh, (laughter) it's amazing what those cars could do. The torque is amazing. And I just feel really good about not using petroleum.

HORSLEY: Dempster placed her order just before this month, when gas prices in California soared to nearly $6 a gallon. She feels lucky she bought when she did.

DEMPSTER: Since I ordered my Tesla, the down payments doubled, and the price has gone up several thousand dollars.

HORSLEY: Dempster expects delivery of her new electric car in about two months. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.