Do any North Fork car dealers have an automobile for you?

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Ted Lucki, Riverhead Toyota, with a newly designed, 2012 sport edition Camry.

It’s all about mileage, right? That’s what you’d think would be driving vehicle sales and leases at a time when gas prices are almost $1 a gallon higher than at the same time in 2011 — and still rising.

But while fuel efficiency is among the driving forces for people entering an automotive showroom, it’s certainly not the only consideration, according to local salespeople. Safety and technology are right up there with gas mileage, and today’s consumers are entering the showroom with far more information than they did several years ago.

They not only know the anticipated mileage but they also have a pretty good idea about sticker prices and the new technology they want in their next vehicles, salespeople agree.

What’s more, they know the reputations of various dealers — and that informs where they buy, according to Rich Mullen at Southold’s Mullen Motors.

“Everybody builds a good car today,” Mr. Mullen said. “Good service is important” for dealers who want to seal the deal. It’s a major factor in buyers’ decisions about where to put down their money, he said.

While there’s definitely a trend toward more economical vehicles, Howie Lucas of Lucas Ford in Southold says people want a vehicle that gives them both good mileage and new styling.

And don’t forget about safety, says Anne Marie Quaranta of Apple Honda in Riverhead. That’s definitely the deciding factor for those shopping at her showroom, she says.

The reason technology is coming into play this year is that much of it is tied into improving mileage, says Jeff Pastor of Riverhead Buick GMC. And he’s not just talking about electric vehicles and hybrids. Mr. Pastor says manufacturers have invested a lot in steps to improve mileage and overall driveability in many vehicles.

Ted Lucki of Riverhead Toyota speaks to that when he notes that the Prius hybrid is no longer the only option he pushes for good mileage.

“Take a look at the new Camry,” he advised, noting that it gets 35 miles to the gallon, not far from the 40 mpg typical of many hybrids. And new cars aren’t just more fuel-efficient, he said, they’re also safer thanks to new technology.

What are people asking for when they enter a dealership?

They don’t care so much about a sunroof, said Ron Siegel of Riverhead Bay Motors. But they want anti-lock brakes, Bluetooth technology and a basic AM-FM radio, he said.

They also want comfort and styling, Mr. Mullen added.

All-wheel drive is also important to a lot of drivers, Mr. Siegel said.

After four years of an ongoing economic downturn that had “a lot of people milking their old cars” for longer periods of time, Mr. Lucki is optimistic that 2012 will bring an uptick in sales.

Interest rates are at historic lows, Mr. Pastor says, predicting an increase in new vehicle sales.

Buying versus leasing

Car dealers are also seeing a leveling out where leases are concerned, although the popularity of leasing can vary greatly by make.

In recent years, Mr. Siegal said, 70 percent of his Volkswagen customers chose leases, compared to 40 percent for Subaru and 10 percent for Suzuki. But today, with low — sometimes 0 percent — financing, more people are opting to purchase rather than lease.

For some customers — especially those who want to be driving a new vehicle every two or three years — leasing is still a practical alternative, according to Ms. Quaranta. If a driver isn’t racking up excessive mileage, the cost can be 27 percent of what it would cost to buy the car outright, she said.

“People like new,” she said, and for less money, a lease enables them to drive a new car every 36 months.

For other drivers, leasing is a means of keeping down monthly payments, according to Mr. Lucki. Instead of paying $500 a month for a purchase, a person may opt to lease for three years at a lower price, then buy out the lease and keep the vehicle permanently, he said.

Another route that’s still proving attractive for a lot of drivers — since so many manufacturers have extended warranties and changed the jargon from “used” to “certified pre-owned” — is acquiring a vehicle that may have just been turned in after a two- or three-year lease, according to the dealers.

“It continues to be a great buy for many people,” Mr. Siegel said.

The purchaser can get a relatively new car with a lot of bells and whistles they could never afford if buying a new car, Mr. Pastor said.

What are the dealers’ favorite new models?

Most dealers have a personal favorite in their fleet, although Ms. Quaranta maintains that 90 percent of her Honda models have five-star ratings and would make great purchases for any driver.

For Mr. Siegel, it’s the new Suzuki SX4 Crossover, which he calls “a lot of car for the money.” It averages about 35 mpg, has four-wheel drive and carries a seven-year or 100,000-mile warranty, he said.

Mr. Lucas brags that the Ford Explorer is “a real winner” that sells for between $28,000 and $33,000 and gets 20 mpg in the city and about 28 mpg on the highway. And while earlier Explorers sustained recalls because of problems with rollovers, most automotive writers maintain that design changes have saved the brand. “It still has a lot of cachet with buyers,” Mr. Lucas said.

The Buick LaCrosse eAssist is Mr. Pastor’s choice for its comfortable ride and fuel economy — averaging 37 mpg, he said.

Mr. Mullen likes the Jeep Grand Cherokee, maintaining that “they can’t build them fast enough.” It combines style and comfort and gets 18 to 23 mpg, he said.

As for Mr. Lucki, while he acknowledges that most might expect him to say the Prius hybrid, his choice is the newly designed Camry.

“It hits all the marks,” he said, noting that its new styling is more attractive than recent Camrys and that it gets about 35 mpg.

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