Australians appear to have mixed feelings about hybrid vehicles.

A new study by Roy Morgan Research finds 45.3% of Australians say they’d seriously consider buying a hybrid vehicle, but only 0.4% of the population now drives one and just 0.3% is intending to buy one in the next four years.

At the same time, the proportion of Aussies who agree that acting now is crucial to controlling environmental problems has fallen substantially, from 88.8% in 2002 to 76%. A growing minority (34.1%, up from 23% 12 years ago) believes threats to the environment are exaggerated.

While interest in hybrids Down Under doesn’t appear to have made much impact on sales, there has been a move away from larger cars in the past eight years toward smaller models (23.9%, up from 19.9%) and SUVs (18.5%, up from 9.1%).

In the past five years, the number of Australians driving large SUVs has increased from 694,000 to 1,149,000. Midsize-SUV ownership rose almost as steeply, from 679,000 to 1,077,000.

Roy Morgan Research industry communications director Norman Morris says although actual ownership of hybrids accounts for a negligible portion of the driving population, the move toward small cars is encouraging from an environmental perspective.

“Of greater concern is the fact that ownership of larger SUVs is rising,” Morris says in a statement.

“The popularity of these hulking, heavy vehicles is at odds with Australians’ widespread belief in the importance of acting now to save the environment. Large SUVs use more fuel than smaller vehicles, therefore emitting more carbon dioxide. Even the diesel-fueled alternatives are harmful to the environment.”

In another divide, Roy Morgan Research finds Australians over 55 are driving new-car sales growth and making up an increasing proportion of the market.

In the 12 months to March, 11.7% of people 55 or older expressed an intention to buy a new car within the next four years, up from 9.9% four years ago. The proportion of those under 55 looking to buy a new car fell from 12.5% to 12.1% during the period.

In 2009, there were 58,000 more new-car intenders under 35 than over 55; now, the tables have turned and buyers 55 and older outnumber those under 35 by 55,000.

Morris says small cars are the favored option among over-55s, with brands such as Subaru, Volkswagen, Kia and Hyundai high on the list.

“They’re also 60% more likely than the general new-car intender population to view newspapers as the most useful source of information when purchasing a new car,” he says.

The other 40% cite the Internet, compared with 54.8% of all intenders.