SUV Sales Continue to Soar Despite High Gas Prices

Despite higher gas prices in recent months, one of every three vehicles sold is an SUV.

Unsold SUVs on a used-car lot. The move away from gas guzzlers is emblematic of what one marketer calls "an anti-bling thing."
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Leave the Prius in park: Despite months of higher gas prices, America's love affair with the sports utility vehicle hasn't soured.

SUV sales have actually been growing in recent months, according to CNNMoney, from about one in five vehicles sold back in the 1990s and early 2000s, to almost a third of all vehicles sold today.

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But today's SUVs aren't like the gas guzzling tanks from a decade ago, experts say. A few years ago, you might need a small ladder to get into the driver's seat of typical truck-based SUVs, like the Ford Excursion or Hummer H2. Now, many of those lane-hogging tanks aren't even sold anymore.

The vast majority of SUVs sold today are actually smaller, more diminutive versions of their ancestors, and have fuel economy that's as good or better than many passenger cars on the road. For instance, the Chevrolet Equinox gets better combined city and highway mileage than some models of the Honda Accord.

"Today's SUVs are not what consumers had just a few years ago," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence at TrueCar.com. "The improving gas mileage, over especially the past couple of years, has really taken away one of the main reasons [a consumer] would not consider buying an SUV."

[Read: Gas Prices Still Squeezing Consumers.]

In fact, dealers can barely keep smaller, more fuel efficient SUVs like the Ford Escape and Honda CR-V in stock, according to industry experts.

"For all intents and purposes, we're sold out," Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes told CNNMoney referring to the Mazda CX-5 SUV.

SUVs are also safer to drive nowadays. A decade ago, their design put the vehicles at a greater risk for catastrophic rollovers. New regulations requiring electronic stability control, a mechanism that helps prevent vehicles from skidding or tipping, has greatly reduced that risk and made handling SUVs on the road easier.

"Most people today actually have the sense that SUVs are safer than smaller cars on the road," Toprak says.

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As the drawbacks of owning and driving an SUV dwindle, an increasing number of consumers of all ages are making the switch from minivans and sedans to the convenience and versatility of SUVs, experts say. Older folks like the ease of getting in and out of a vehicle with higher seating, while younger consumers are enamored with the sleek looks and features of this new generation of vehicles, plus the fact that they look nothing like the minivans their Mom and Dad drove.

"The new styling and design has been able to bring in additional segments [of consumers] who traditionally did not like the boxy SUV look," Toprak says. "You're getting people who never even thought about buying an SUV years ago, now because of the plentiful number of choices out there and styling improvements gets their attention."

Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.