Pickup truck owners -- often portrayed as tough guys who want engine power and off-road prowess -- are now much more interested in improved fuel economy, according to a recent survey by R. L. Polk & Co.

The study, commissioned by Environmental Defense, the New York-based environmental advocacy group, found that that pickup truck buyers use their vehicles for mundane functions such as commuting to work rather than off-roading or pulling trees from the ground, as some industry defenders insist.

Large sport-utility vehicles have been criticized most for their size, safety and fuel consumption. SUVs have been attacked from a variety of quarters, including spiritual groups and those who want to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The resulting sales declines in big SUVs have spoiled the financial results of General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., the biggest producers of the vehicles.

So far, pickup trucks, which trail passenger cars in fuel economy, have escaped such public scorn and precipitous sales declines. This year, industry sales of pickups have been flat, while sales of large SUVs have fallen 19 percent, according to Autodata Corp.

The Ford F-Series, in its many variations, remains the country's most popular vehicle. Ford sold 54,400 F-Series trucks in October, far outpacing the second-place Toyota Camry by more than 20,000 vehicles. A two-wheel-drive F-150 gets about 16 miles per gallon in city driving and 20 miles per gallon on the highway.

Top executives at both Ford and GM have pledged to bring out new vehicles with better fuel economy and are working to improve the fuel economy of current models, including SUVs and pickup trucks. Dug Dugger, general sales manager of Ourisman Ford in Bethesda, said truck buyers are searching for more fuel-efficient models, particularly trucks with diesel engines.

But Dugger said he doubted that the forces that have made SUV buyers reconsider would ever affect male truck owners. "The guy who buys the truck can always justify to his neighbor and to himself in his own mind that 'I'm a truck guy. . . . I have to have a truck,' " he said.

Trucks have long been sold on tough-guy imagery -- reinforced by endless streams of commercials from Detroit automakers hammering at the idea that pickups are "Built Ford Tough" or "Like a Rock." Dugger said SUV owners were more likely to be moms and corporate dads who ultimately yielded to price spikes at the pump and to cultural pressures by dumping their SUVs.

Kevin Mills, director of the Environmental Defense's Clean Car Campaign, also plans to use the study in the policy war between the auto industry and environmentalists. Mills said Environmental Defense will submit the survey's findings to the federal government during the public comment period as the Department of Transportation considers changes to fuel economy regulations. "In the policy context, there are a lot of misperceptions of what pickup trucks are used for and what people do and don't want from them," Mills said.

In the survey, Polk called a random sampling of 300 owners of pickup trucks from the 2004 and 2005 model years. The respondents were asked to rate the importance of attributes such as horsepower, off-road capability and fuel economy. According to the study, fuel economy rated more strongly than all the other attributes combined. In May, the Sierra Club released a report calling on the auto industry to improve fuel efficiency in pickup trucks. The group criticized the automakers for not adding fuel-saving technology to trucks.

Dealers expect men to keep buying pickups for their image, but buyers also want better fuel economy.