Consumers feel pinch in the pocketbook

With fuel prices reaching ever higher highs, driving pocketbooks to lower lows with each fill of the tank, it’s no wonder that the average motorist is considering ways to stretch a gallon of gas.

On Kaua‘i, where four-wheel-drive trucks with off-road tires reign supreme, two-wheeled mopeds have long been the domain of visitors. With $5 for unleaded a real possibility by the end of the year — the Princeville Service Station was charging as much for supreme yesterday — hopping on a candy-colored Vespa is not so far-fetched an idea.

Garden Island Motorsports in Waipouli says it’s having a hard time keeping up with demand for scooters, which follow the same rules of the road as bicycles and do not require a motorcycle license to drive.

Since taking over the dealership from a previous owner on June 2, 15 mopeds have zipped off the lot. Another eight are spoken for once they arrive, and 20 more are on order and up for grabs.

Honda’s Ruckus, described by Motorsports General Manager Ron Victorino as a masculine model with a “Mad Max” look, as well as the more rounded Metropolitan and the classic Vespa varieties have a maximum speed of about 35 mph. But just like the tortoise and the hare, a moped owner’s patience is rewarded in the end — with unbeatable efficiency at 100 miles per gallon.

Motorsports Sales Manager Christyl Nagao said the functionality depends on the intended use: Mopeds are great for running errands around Kapa‘a town; a daily Princeville-Lihu‘e commute, however, might be pushing it.

“It’s all about gas” for customers, she said, making it no surprise, then, that Motorsports’ sales of specialty pleasure vehicles such as four-wheelers and dirt bikes are down.

Tim Lach, Kaua‘i Harley-Davidson general manager, said he’s also seeing a shift from purchases for recreation to purchases for transportation. He’s also noticed more Harley enthusiasts use their bikes to get to work — not just for cruising on the weekend.

“The economy being what it is, interest (in Harley-Davidsons) has definitely spiked,” Lach said.

For now, the trend seems to be developing with caution.

“A purchase may not take place immediately, but the seeds are planted and the process of stepping out of the SUV and hopping onto a motorcycle seat has begun for many,” he said. “Motorcycles, scooters, mopeds and soon trikes are without question a part of our transportation solutions for the future.”

Function over fashion

It may have taken runaway oil prices to shake American consumers from their unchecked driving habits, but now that they’re changing, carmakers are having a hard time shifting production to stay ahead of the curve.

In June, nearly all the major automakers reported steep sales declines, and the overall market fell 18.3 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that these numbers represented the worst June for the industry in 17 years — and the situation is not expected to improve. Analysts have said that automakers simply did not react quickly enough to the staggering rise of gas prices by swapping out high-mileage trucks and SUVs with compact cars.

Only Honda Motor Co., whose lineup is tilted toward smaller and more fuel-efficient cars, reported a sales increase for June — slightly over 1 percent, according to AP.

Jose Aguayo, general manager of King Auto Center, which sells Hondas, said good timing countered the “huge swing” in customer preferences of late. The dealership was rewarded with extra inventory for renovating its facility, which paid off when demand spiked for compacts such as Honda’s Fit and Civic.

“I hadn’t really foreseen this,” Aguayo said.

He wasn’t the only one.

Contributing to its dismal 21 percent drop in sales, Toyota Motor Corp. couldn’t provide dealerships with enough of the fuel-efficient Prius, Corolla or Yaris to keep up, AP reports.

Todd Grant, general manager of Kaua‘i Toyota, said the smallest cars and the hybrids are noticeably more popular since gas hit $4 a gallon, a “tipping point” for consumers.

“People buying the bigger cars need them for utility, not for basic transportation,” Grant said.

Down the road, Kuhio Motors has sold out of its smallest models — Hyundai Elantra and Nissan Sentra — and is low on Hyundai Accents and Nissan Versas.

But General Manager Michael Keppel isn’t convinced that families with three or four kids can afford to downsize the vehicle that hauls everyone to school, soccer practice and the beach.

“There’s no way to stuff (the family) into an Accent,” Keppel said. “(The SUV) is still part of the American family.”

Instead of trading a gas-guzzler for a sipper, many dealerships say customers are opting to add to their fleet — using a compact car for commuting to work or solo trips to the grocery store, while the heavy-duty truck functions for work, camping or hunting.

The wheels on the bus go round and round

For every Kaua‘i resident considering a moped or compact car to save on gas, there are countless more taking the bus.

Ridership on The Kaua‘i Bus last month was 35,323 trips, compared to 29,468 in June 2007. Since 2000, the numbers have more than doubled — from 150,000 annual trips to the current 314,000.

For Transportation Agency Executive Janine Rapozo, the correlation between rising gas prices and increasing ridership is obvious.

“At $15 per month for a bus pass for unlimited rides, it’s no comparison,” she said.

To keep up, the county has increased bus service to Koloa and Po‘ipu, started service to Wailua Homesteads, bumped up routes to and from the North Shore, and as recently as Tuesday added stops at the Moloa‘a Fruit Stand and Kauai Coffee Visitor Center. In addition, larger vehicles are being purchased.

The Kaua‘i County Council in May approved $425,000 to further grow bus service, as well as $30,000 to give all county employees a free pass for the year.

Rapozo said expansion plans will weigh input from the public and the Transit Advisory Committee before addressing the most pressing needs such as standing-room-only buses. Currently the busiest routes are Lihu‘e to and from Kekaha and Hanalei, and the peak times are early morning and late afternoon.

Still, Kaua‘i’s buses run on fossil fuels, and the county’s had to foot the bill. The price of diesel, for instance, rose from $2.90 per gallon in January 2007 to $3.78 in March of this year — costing the Transportation Agency an average $8,782 extra per month.

Three months later and $3.78 doesn’t seem so steep.

It’s unclear how Kaua‘i — along with the rest of the nation — will respond to the tireless climb of oil prices without any assurance that they’ll settle or return to “normal.”

There’s no question, though, that the impact has trickled down to the average joe, and he’s starting to make lifestyle changes that are now rippling back up to businesses and government.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of four articles examining how rising oil prices are affecting life on Kaua‘i. The series will appear in the Thursday edition throughout July. Upcoming topics include food prices, utilities and tourism.

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