For drivers stung by high gas prices, happiness is a Geo Metro.The tiny sedan, discontinued in 2001, has nearly tripled in price on used-car lots in the past few months, pushed upward by customers who yearn for 40-plus mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency.
Local car dealers say the demand for the model far outstrips supply, an observation in line with national statistics that show compact cars are the top sellers in an otherwise sluggish market for used vehicles. The heightened demand extends to nearly all small cars, including the Honda Civic and Ford Focus.
This past Saturday, Ricart Chevrolet in Columbus rolled out a 1997 Metro and sold it within hours. The vehicle attracted the most interest of any on the dealership’s Web site, said sales manager John Henthorne.
“I wish we had a whole lot full of Metros,” he said.
But the no-frills cars aren’t for everyone. One potential buyer came all the way from Cleveland, only to find she didn’t like the car’s lack of power steering.
Just about any Metro will sell, regardless of the condition or mileage.
Whitesides of Cambridge, a Buick dealer in the eastern Ohio city, sold a Metro last week, a trade-in with more than 200,000 miles. A customer bought the car before it was officially put out for sale.
“Let’s put it this way: It sold before it ever got traded in,” manager Bill Gannon said.
He said he probably wouldn’t have put the vehicle on his lot a few years ago. Now, he can’t put them out fast enough.
The Metro was introduced in 1989 and sold until 1997 under the Geo banner. From 1998 to 2001, it was sold as the Chevrolet Metro.
Kelley Blue Book, a provider of vehicle-pricing data, said in its current edition that a 1990 Metro was worth $1,175. The company’s Web site provides updated information and says the model is now selling for $3,000.
Robyn Eckard, director of public relations for Kelley Blue Book, said the increase is one of the most dramatic shifts of any model, brought on by the relative scarcity of the cars. Other gas-sipping cars have risen in value but not nearly as much.
“We are seeing people looking at more fuel-efficient cars than ever before,” Eckard said.
Jeanie Giambri of Westerville is one of those people. She was out this week looking for a car to replace her sedan, which gets about 23 miles per gallon.
“I’m looking for something more economical to drive. That’s the bottom line,” she said.
Her comments are the kind of thing Mike Warfield hears every day at CarMax at Easton, one of two local outlets for the national used-car retailer. He said the concern about fuel efficiency extends to all vehicle categories.
“It isn’t just compact cars. If they want an SUV, they want the one with the best fuel economy,” said Warfield, senior buyer at the Easton location.
National statistics underscore his point. J.D. Power and Associates has found that the smallest used cars had the fastest-growing prices in March and April. The category, known as compact basic — which includes the Metro and Toyota Yaris, among others — had an average price of $10,039, up 7.3 percent from the same period the year before.
The other top categories also were geared toward fuel efficiency, while the categories with the worst price performances were pickups and SUVs.
Overall, used-car prices dropped 0.5 percent, with an average price of $16,609.
Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis for J.D. Power, said used-car prices are a great barometer of the overall auto market because car dealers have broad authority to set prices, while new-car inventories and prices often are out of local dealers’ hands.
And right now, the barometer says fuel economy is by far the top consideration, a factor that just happens to be the chief virtue of the Geo Metro.
Libby said the surge in the Metro’s value “makes perfect sense.”
“It’s a highly fuel-efficient vehicle and there probably aren’t that many around. In today’s environment, it’s very valuable,” he said.