SOUTH PORTLAND – The Flaherty family seemed eager to climb into their new 2010 Traverse SUV and escape the midday heat in the parking lot at Pape Chevrolet.

“It’s a beautiful car,” said Dawn Flaherty, as she admired her new crimson-colored ride. “Its sportier looking than our old minivan but has the same functionality that our family needs.”

The Flaherty’s purchase of the Traverse reflects a growing trend among car buyers: Forego the smaller, more energy-efficient vehicle for the sexier, more practical, crossover SUV. Crossovers are smaller compact versions of the traditional SUV.

Joshua Conley, a sales manager at Quirk Chevrolet in Portland, said that people who buy crossover SUVs need the space. “Take a mother with three children and try to fit them into a compact,” said Conley.

Midsize crossovers Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia showed a combined sales increase of 39 percent during the month of June, according to a GM sales release. More specifically, the Traverse saw a 56 percent year-over-year increase in sales since June 2009.

Demand for crossovers at other manufactures is high as well. Tucker Cianchette, general manager at Brunswick Ford on Pleasant Street in Brunswick, said that Ford’s crossover SUV, the Escape, is back-ordered.

“The Escape is fuel efficient, stylish and practical,” said Cianchette. “Their sales account for 20-25 percent of my business.”

In contrast, sales of the smaller and more efficient Toyota Prius fell 30 percent in July 2010 compared with a year earlier, reported Stephen Calogera of egmCarTech, an online automotive news source.

The sales data confirm that consumers are bucking the conventional wisdom that smaller cars are more appealing due to the economic and environmental benefits of improved gas mileage.

But Don Lee, president of Lee Auto Mall of Maine, believes consumers are still sensitive to fuel efficiency, and that manufacturers are simply doing a better job of decreasing the gas consumption of all models and sizes.

“The manufacturers have put a lot of focus into improving gas mileage,” said Lee. “The fact that gas prices have been stable for the last nine months has also helped because people have more confidence that they can predict what their fuel costs are going to be.”

Steve Tsujiura, a sales manager at Pape Chevrolet, agrees that better fuel economy in the new models has helped sales, but he attributes much of the sales increase to the practical needs of the consumer.

“The people who buy these cars are married folks with a couple of kids,” said Tsujiura. “It’s the soccer mom demographic.”

The Flahertys fit right into that demographic. With two active young kids, Brooke and Blake, the Flahertys will be driving a car laden with kids, backpacks and sports gear from home to school to sporting events.

“The Traverse is great for families with kids who are carpooling and running around to sporting events,” said Todd Flaherty.

The surge in crossover SUV demand is great news for GM, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy not long ago after a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Even sales of full-size SUVs have increased.

According to USA Today, GM has added overtime shifts at one of its factories in Arlington, Texas, that builds the Chevy Tahoe, Suburban and the Cadillac Escalade.

Pape Chevrolet needs all the SUVs GM can provide.

“We sold 70 SUVs last month, including 40 trucks,” said Tsujiura. “We have six Equinoxes on back order, and that’s probably why they are ramping up production.

 

Staff Writer Max Monks can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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