The distance between the Honda of Marysville and Nelson Auto Group Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership is less than a mile.

The distance between the Honda of Marysville and Nelson Auto Group Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership is less than a mile.

While the dealerships are separated by little more than four lanes of U.S. Route 33, the impact of $4-a-gallon gasoline prices on the businesses presents a stark contrast.

For Nelson Auto Group owner Greg Nelson, the arrival of $4-a-gallon gas has meant the departure of employees as sales of less fuel-efficient American-made vehicles, especially trucks and sport utility vehicles, have diminished.

"What we're seeing is a lack of interest in the big cars and trucks and SUVs," Nelson said. "That market is just dead."

While smaller cars have sold relatively well, Nelson said the interest in larger vehicles has disappeared over the past 60 days, the same time period when gasoline prices climbed from $3 a gallon to $4.

A veteran of more than 20 years in the automotive industry, Nelson said he is surprised that U.S. automakers weren't more proactive.

"They have been through this before," he said. "They could have insulated themselves somewhat by having the ability to switch the plants to produce smaller cars. The technology has to be there where, in a matter of six months, they could switch the plants and start producing the small cars."

Unfortunately for Nelson and other domestic auto dealers, that hasn't been the case. He said the big three automakers are currently committed to the production of 2010 models before such a transition could take place.

Nelson even went as far as to offer $1.99 gasoline for a 3-year period to customers who purchased new vehicles from his dealership.

"I thought if they (Chrysler) are going to bear the risk, the exposure, from $2.99 on, if I take it to $1.99, my exposure is just $1," he said. "In most cases, it's somewhere between $1,200 and $1,600 for that particular incentive. I thought 'heck, what a marketing idea. $1.99 for gas for the next three years.'"

The end result?

"Overall we had a push the second or third week and then it just fell apart," he said. "I just don't understand it. To this day, I don't have the momentum, the sales we expected out of that program. I expected people to flock up here with a guarantee of $1.99 gas. I think people don't believe it. I think they seriously don't believe it. It's very frustrating. We geared up for it and stood behind it but it just hasn't caught on."

In 2005, Nelson had 90 employees. Today his dealership has 45. The car lot that once was stocked with as many as 300 vehicles now has 80.

Ironically, Nelson's recently opened Hyundai dealership in Licking County is thriving. He said sales of the fuel efficient import line are strong.

"I feel very fortunate to have that franchise, especially in these market conditions," he said.

Product specialist Jack Mosley, a former Nelson employee, says business is booming across the highway at Honda Marysville.

While the gas price increases have hurt domestic automakers, they appear to have driven customers to manufacturers such as Honda.

"I've seen it from the domestic side and the import side," Mosley said.

What he has seen are customers who are anxious to get out of their gas hogs and into more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"We have a lot of people trading sport utilities, vans and trucks," he said. "They are into that gas-savings mentality. Gas prices have become a hard payment for them, like a car payment or house payment. It has become something you have to budget for."

The first visible display inside the door of the Honda Marysville dealership is a gas-savings chart. It helps customers estimate how much money they can save by driving a fuel-efficient vehicle.

When comparing a Honda Civic, which gets about 36 miles per gallon, and a Chevrolet Suburban, which gets about 15 miles per gallon, Mosley said if both vehicles are driven 15,000 miles in a year and the gas cost is $4 per gallon, the Civic driver would save $194.44 per month or $2,333.33 per year. If gas prices reach $5 per gallon, the savings would climb to $243.06 per month, or $2,916.67 a year.

"Typically with the Civics, we have been pre-selling them before they even hit the lot," he said. "Most of them are going at list price. It's kind of supply and demand. People are lining up out the door to buy them. It's a crazy thing at this point."

Mosley said there has been no sales downturn at Honda Marysville.

"We sold 250 cars last month," he said.

Business is also strong next door at Honda Marysville Powersports, where two wheels translate into gas mileage as high as 100-plus miles per gallon, according to product specialist April Wolf.

"We have a lot of people coming in saying 'what is the best thing you have that gets the best gas mileage,'" Wolf said. "A lot of people are talking about getting something to get them to and from work because they are commuting 45 minutes or a half an hour every day."

While the dealership has a full line of motorcycles including the $20,000-plus Honda Goldwing cruisers, Wolf said the smaller scooters and motorcycles are the hottest sellers in the wake of recent gasoline price increases.

She said the Honda 50cc scooters, which sell for around $2,000, get more than 100 miles per gallon. The automatic scooters range in size and price from the $1,899 50cc Metropolitan to the $8,000 600 cc Honda Silverwing.

The most popular motorcycle is the 250cc, $3,199 Honda Rebel.

"We're going through a lot of the Rebels and the scooters right now," she said. "The Rebels are selling really well right now. We have a waiting list for them."