American car buyers have been turning away from large trucks and SUVs for a while now, and Ford executives think they know what did it: $3.50 for a gallon of gasoline.

Automotive News (subs req'd) reports that Ford CEO Alan Mulally spoke last night to automotive reporters and revealed that his company's internal sales data from early May (combined with earlier reports) shows that the move toward smaller vehicles "is more dramatic and permanent than previously projected," in AN's words. Mulally said that the $3.50 level was when buying shifts "really started to move." Ford's U.S. pickup sales numbers dropped from 14.1 percent of its retail sales in 2007 to 13 percent in early 2008 to 11 percent in April to just 9 percent so far in May. SUV sales dropped as well (from 8.4 to 6.8 to 5.2 to 4.4 percent in the same time frames). Looking to the future, Ford is estimating that U.S. gas prices will sit somewhere between $3.75 and $4.25 a gallon for the rest of this year and next.

[Source: Automotive News (subs req'd)]