Kunz: Economy cars gain in popularity

LOS ANGELES With gas prices high, and the economy on shaky ground, many car buyers will be looking to spend less in the showroom. That should be good news for Hyundai, which has updated the 2009 Hyundai Sonata ($18,785 base price, 19/32 mpg). It compares to cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, but - in Hyundai tradition - beats them on price.

"We like to consider ourselves a smart brand, because people who buy our cars typically do a lot of research, they use the Internet quite often," said Hyundai spokesman Michael Deitz. "And we find that after they research it, that's when they actually come in and do a test drive and realize, 'Wow, it actually looks good in person, and drives really well.'"

While sales of SUVs are way down, and car sales in general are expected to be lower this year, the lower-priced cars seem to be doing well.

"People look at the sticker and they look at the gas mileage, and they're basing those two factors on just about everything right now," said USA Today auto writer Chris Woodyard.

So as consumers run the numbers, a basic family car like the Sonata can be more appealing than it might have been when buyers were a little freer in their spending.

Hyundai used to be somewhat mocked by many, but the brand has made great strides in quality and features. There are certain luxuries buyers expect in their cars today, and of course there are safety features mandated by law. Many buyers feel that as long as they can get their luxury and their safety, they can get by just fine with a less expensive vehicle.

Even the smaller economy cars are quite easy to live with these days. Toyota's newly-redesigned 2009 Toyota Corolla ($15,250 base price, 22/35 mpg) now somewhat mimics the look of the bigger, more expensive Camry. The Corolla has always been considered a smart buy, even if it is a little boring compared to some of the fancier models on the road.

Ford has also restyled the compact 2009 Ford Focus ($14,395 base price, 24/35 mpg), and it's selling very well so far this year. In fact, Ford has ordered the factory to increase Focus production to keep up with expected demand.

"People are going small. People are moving smaller wherever they can. Right now, gas is king. Gas price is king," said Woodyard.

People will still need or want to buy new cars in the coming months and years -- they just might be holding their wallets a little tighter now.


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