Americans still hooked on gas guzzlers

Minivans, SUVS, crossovers and pickups: We can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. The big question is whether rising fuel costs will squeeze our love for big vehicles and hurt the economy.

By Charley Blaine Feb 3, 2011 3:27AM
Image: Couple shopping for car (© ThinkStock/Jupiterimages)If you dig through the January auto sales numbers, one thing stands out: Larger vehicles rule.

We're talking pickups, sport-utility vehicles, minivans, crossover vehicles. Technically known as light-duty trucks.

Sure, car sales did fine. Sales were up 7% from a year ago, according to Autodata, the industry market tracker. But that gain is nothing compared with that of light-duty trucks, whose sales were up 28% from a year ago.

Here's the stark reality of the situation. Automakers sold 390,014 cars. And they sold 429,781 light-duty trucks -- 52.4% of the total, up from 47.9% a year ago.

In 2010, car sales grew 5%. Light-truck sales grew 17.9% and accounted for 50.2% of domestic vehicle sales. In 2009, light trucks had just a 47.3% market share. But that was the year of the Cash for Clunkers program, when buying a fuel-efficient vehicle got you a fat tax credit.

So as soon as the tax break was gone and the economy looked liked it might be on the mend, Americans went back to big vehicles. This is great for Ford Motor (F), General Motors (GM) and Chrysler Group. For them, big vehicles -- OK, light trucks -- are where they still make their profits.

Big vehicles are also good for Toyota Motor (TM), Honda Motor (HMC) and Nissan (NSANY). They accounted for 43% of Toyota sales in 2010, up from 37.3% in 2009; nearly 44% of Honda sales, up from 39% in 2009; and 35% of Nissan sales, up from 33% in 2010.

What's the deal? Americans like big, roomy vehicles, and it is really tough to break the habit. They'll buy them until gasoline prices get so high that they stop buying. They cut back their craving for large vehicles in 2007 and 2008 as gasoline pushed to an all-time high of $4.14 a gallon nationally. Big-vehicle sales fell like a rock.

A collapse of gasoline prices in fall 2008 gave the all-clear sign again.

Which brings us to the fact that crude oil finished at $90.86 a barrel Wednesday, up 168.3% from the market's bottom in December 2008. Crude has been as high as $91.86 (on Jan. 12), and many analysts believe it will top $100 a barrel by spring.

The national retail price of gasoline is averaging about $3.11 a gallon, a level last seen in October 2008. And the question a lot of people are asking is what the impact will be on big-vehicle sales and the economy if gasoline hits, say, $3.50.

The most likely scenario is that big-vehicle sales will drop. They will really drop if gasoline hits $4. But the entire domestic economy -- and the global economy, to boot -- will be hit.

And that may well be the reason the Saudis started to make noises last week that current prices are plenty high.
60Comments
Feb 3, 2011 5:22PM
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My 2002 dodge 2500 gets 10mpg city, but I only drive 10 miles per day. People need to look at how many gallons of gas they burn per day not just at the mpg. I burn 1 gallon of gas per day, no payments on the truck and minimum insurance because I do not have a loan on the truck. Thats economic sense to me.
Feb 3, 2011 1:47PM
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I don't drive a big one, I drive a compact, but I would drive a hybrid if they were affordable. They cost more than the SUVs! Maybe when the hybrids and electric cars are more affordable, people won't buy those huge gas guzzlers.
Feb 3, 2011 10:40AM
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You know what is funny? The last time oil passed $100/barrel, every idiot in the country was attacking Bush like somehow the president has magical powers to control every aspect of our life. Those same idiots are as quiet as a mouse surrounded by 100 cats. Not one of them is yelling and screaming and claiming "Big Oil has Obama in their back pocket." The liberals in this country are the most hypocritical creatures I could possibly imagine.

By the way, my wife and I own two vehicles. A crossover and a nice big Dodge Ram 1500. I pay for the gas no matter what price it is and I don't cry about it. Do I always "need" a truck or crossover? Nope. In my opinion though, I need it often enough to justify it and I'm not interested in buying a third vehicle for those times a truck and crossover isn't needed. While many of you were stranded or trapped in your home during the recent snow storm across the country, I was not. In fact, I helped a few of you get unstuck. You're welcome.
Feb 3, 2011 5:38PM
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My husband is 6' 6" tall.  What should he drive?  He does need to be comfortable.  He drives a Chevy Suburban and his right knee still hits the dash!!!  As for the remarks that if you have enough money to put gas in an SUV then you can pay more taxes!  How stupid is that!!!  you could make the same point for smokers, drinkers, drug users, people that buy name brand purses and clothes , etc.  We all have our priorities on what is important to us! 

Feb 3, 2011 2:51PM
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I drive my 11 year old biga**  gas guzzling dented scratched up Tundra that I have owned outright for  many years because every time a storm hits (snow,ice,wind,lightning) someone needs trees/branches removed that I not only get paid for (side job) BUT get the free wood to boot---I have heated my house for 9 years now FREE with FREE wood. No way I could SAVE that kind of money driving a little car!!
Feb 3, 2011 6:55PM
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When you live in rural areas of the midwest we need our light- duty vehicles in the winter. Reference the blizzard we are still digging out of. I don't think mini-coopers would handle the work.
Feb 3, 2011 11:53AM
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52% of vehicles sold were big gas guzzlers.The reason for that is simple.
52% of Americans are large food guzzlers. They can't fit in cars.

Feb 3, 2011 12:38PM
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"We can't live without em..."

 

What's this WE stuff keemosabe?

 

A huge part of the US population has downsized our vehicles already.

When gas was over $4 and I had to replace my car in 2008, I went smaller and don't miss the size.  All I need is some cool buds, tasty waves and good MPG.

 

When ga**** $4 again, the masses will migrate to small cars again.

Detroit is already going small(er) as Ford's lineup has really changed.

Feb 3, 2011 4:34PM
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If we were to cut the commodity traders that have no interest in taking delivery of the commodity they are buying oil would go back down to $50 a barrel and gas would be back at $2 a gallon.

 

When you have 10 people that need crude oil to make gas and 20,000 bidding on it the price goes up for the people that HAVE TO HAVE IT.  The guy that isnt going to take delivery of the crude oil doesnt care if it goes up $1 in price.  Hes buying and selling it like its a share of stock.  He will sell the contract just before he takes delivery of it.  So why are we soo stupid to let these people drive the price up like they did before and they are doing again?

 

What happened in 2008 to make oil hit $150 a barrel?  Inventories were rather high, supply was meeting demand, and the middle east countries even increased production once in that span but prices still went up.  It didnt make any sense.

Feb 3, 2011 11:49AM
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Well what do you know? We're here again. Rising fuel costs eat away what little disposable income the average family has. What little is there after paying rising health insurance ... but hey the HMOs are still racking up their 10% per year earnings growth with the same amount of enrolees ... go figure.

Anybody ready to get serious about restricting the middleman futures buyer from the oil market who neither produces nor takes delivery yet ?

Anybody ready to get behind the alterbnative energy path so we can create more clean power to feed electric cars ? or switch all diesel trucks and tractors to CNG? That's 90% of our oil use here, vehicles of all kinds. Yet we could have half the oil demand and still see prices rocket because of futures trading by everybody BUT those who create it or use it for the consumer to get what they need.

I'll listen to the drill baby drill idiots the day over half the oil from Alaska or the Gulf aren't exported to Japan and the rest of the World, and all consumed in the US. They don't seem to get that point..... ever.

Just my non inflatioan adjusted 2 cents worth. Stay warm out there !

Feb 3, 2011 4:59PM
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My dad currently has a 2002 E150 with a 5.4L V8. That thing normally averages about 11 mpg in mixed driving. Take a trip on the highway? We might be lucky to see 15 mpg. When we bought it new, it was either that or a Windstar (I'm from a family of 5). The E150 was a few thousand cheaper and could haul a LOT more, which was necessary because we had an 18' Four Winns boat and a 26' travel trailer at the time. With hauling capability, generous legroom, less cramped seating accommodations, and ginormous trunk space, the big van has been a super convenient vehicle. Yeah the gas mileage is terrible, but it's been payment-free for 5 years now and it's pretty much the total package.

We're looking to upgrade soon though since the RWD beast is a b**** in the winter and a change would be nice. The kicker is that we still need something with a third row, towing power for the upgraded 22' boat, 4WD, and trunk space. Right now, dad is 99% the next vehicle in late spring or summer will be an Explorer. He has yet to test drive a 2011 Exp, so it's between a brand new one or a used 2006-2010 model. If he goes with the 06-10, then the fuel economy is still going to be dismal despite a small step up from the E150. That's the thing though - even though fuel economy sucks, what the hell else is there that fills all the qualifications above? 16 mpg really isn't too shabby when you keep in mind that however nice a Focus or Fiesta may be, it can't pull a boat or seat a friend in addition to the rest of the family like a good ole' SUV can.

I think some of these Prius-driving journalists need to go spend a week with a family of 5+, then proceed to tell them that an SUV is totally unnecessary.

Feb 3, 2011 5:13PM
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Back in "the day", families had station wagons to haul around people and things. Now we have minivans and SUVs. My SUV is a necessity. I am a single mom with two sons, but add my boyfriend and his son, a couple of dogs and some camping gear, and the SUV becomes almost too small!

 

Thhe argument can be made that we do not go camping everyday. You are right. However, between baseball season, ski season, hockey season and the accompanying gear...plus add the ocassional friend. The car is full most of the time.

 

My 2004 Toyota Sequoia averages 16 mpg. Not great, but acceptable given all of the advantages in affords our family. I will drive it until it drops and then Ill get another one.

Feb 3, 2011 11:31AM
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You need to calculate the efficiency of your vehicle based on fuel use per passenger mile, or it is meaningless.  My car, (Honda Insight Hybrid, 2006), gets 61.5 mpg, but only carries two.  Works out to 123 pmpg, (passenger miles per gallon),  My other car, (Plymouth Voyager Mini-van, 1998), gets 18 mpg, but carries 7, or even 8, and carries a bunches of stuff.  Works out to 144 passenger miles per gallon.  It is the more fuel effective vehicle, but only when fully loaded, and guess what, I don't ever drive it anywhere by myself, unless I am moving furniture or something.  And guess what, the Honda Insight doesn't move furniture very well.

 

Better do the math, and forget your childhood when selecting a car, unless you like being poor.

 

Good Luck!

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Geeze..... next time I drive my Chevy 2500 4 x 4 HD....... I hope you dont flag me down to pull your Prius out of the snowbank.
By the way, Im also a Volunteer Firefighter. If you or your family had an emergency in inclement weather, or, while hiking on a trail in the woods..... Im gonna bet you would be really happy that I had a way to get to you or your loved one.

Feb 3, 2011 2:20PM
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Island with a palm treeI use my 1976  El-Dorado gas guzzler every now and then, just to keep it in shape and to enjoy the countryside. I don't really care about the price of gasoline ,it is the feeling of driving a vehicle that you love that counts.Auto

 

Best thing to offset the cost of ever rising gas price is to invest in equities that has something to do with energies and or alternative energy stocks because they have the tendency to go up when prices of energy goes up.

Feb 3, 2011 6:53PM
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Jav621:

 

  I dont like driving small cars, never have never will, and yes my truck is part of my identity it tells me what i live to drive and what i like to work on.  I work on my truck all the time, i would bother if it was some little 4 cylinder engine or hybrid, there is no fun in that.   Plus im a big and tall guy and most small sized cars i can barely fit into without bashing my knees into the dashboard.

 

  I drive a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee, it has a 5.9 Liter V8 engine which is one of the worst engines ever put into a truck for gas mileage.   I get around 13mpg in the city, and 18-19 or so on the freeway.   It has 250hp but 350lbs of torque, i can tow 6500lbs with it.   It has pleny of space to put my summer equipment in for work, or to put in my telescope to drive to the mountains and view the stars.  Its a 4 wheel drive and i drove in 3 feet of unplowed snow without a problem.   I sounds awsome too, unlike your 4 cylinder or hybrid engine which sounds like nothing except a small electric generator.   Oh and guess what its fully loaded with leather seats, power heated seats, power windows, sunroof, 10 speaker stereo, heated mirror's, dimming mirror's, auto climate control, fog lights, stereo channle and volume adjustment on the steering wheel.   The only thing i dont have is a fancy GPS or phone system in the center but that is fixed by a seprete GPS system i bought from a store.

 

     You see unlike some people who turned in there gas guzzling Vehicles in during cash for clunkers because they couldnt afford the gas, i kept mine you know why ?  Because why would i ever want to spend $500 a month for a carpayment, and $50-60 a month on gas (getting 50mpg) and own a poorly made vehicle interior and feature wise.  When i could spend $200 a month on gas with a working truck that looks like new on the inside and outside only 120k miles ?   

 

 Yea you heared me look at your prius online look at the top model prius for $30k, my 12 year old Jeep has more features in it then a 2011 hybrid..  Why would i want to downgrade to upgrade ?  It makes no sense.   On top of that hybrids have 100hp engines that do 0-60 in 10-12 seconds.  I go 0-60 in 6.8seconds with a 4600 pound SUV lol.  

 

   I dont care if my engine puts out more pollutants.  I have only one life and im going to live it with loud American V8 gas guzzling engines.   It would take someone 10 years are current gas prices with a car payment and yes spending money on gas even if they get 50-60mpg, to equal what i spend getting 10mpg on my paid for vehicle.

 

  This is one reason why i have a bumper sticker that says (Keep driving your hybrid, My Jeep needs the gas)  My Plates say 10mpg on it.  Just to piss off tree huggers.

 

  Dont get me wrong im all for new tech, and the future but im not going to be forced to drive a peice of **** hybrid, but thats all they are currently.  Is junk.

Feb 3, 2011 5:17PM
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what happen to the fact we are Americans and have the right to chose.  
Feb 3, 2011 10:49AM
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I have always been a fan of v8's and v6's. Recently I bought a 4 cyl compact car and love the gas savings. The vehicle is a 4 dr hatch model so I have some of the Sport utility features but the nice thing is small payment and small gas bill. I still have my fullsize truck and enjoy driving it, living in the country I need it to haul things around. My next vehicle will be a fuel efficient one too. And if ga**** $4/gal I am ready, wont be happy about it, but I'm ready.

Feb 3, 2011 7:23PM
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I don't really care what people drive. I happen to have the luxury of walking to work. Way better than the stress of sitting in traffic. I do however get really annoyed with the me, me, and me mentality when it comes to resources. Also as the price of fuel rises the loudest complaints usually come from the fools that don't really need the "Excursion" for one.
Feb 3, 2011 5:53PM
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What is often overlooked in this discussion is the fact that the government brought all this about when they exempted light trucks from emission/mileage requirements back in the late '70's.  The result was that cars went into the toilet quality-wise, because the technology and design were not up to standards.  Engineers had to retrofit computer controls on carb cars, etc. So the consumer went to trucks in greater and greater numbers.   This is called voting with your feet.  The government never figures this concept out, and it is why we have most of the troubles in this country.  Up until this time, the biggest segment in auto sales was the full-size  car and the station wagon.  As I explained, the government "killed" this segment, and people went to trucks.  Get the government out of the business of deciding for us what we should  or should not be doing.  Drive whatever you need to drive; you have my permission.  PM52
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