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.
Feb 3, 2011 4:17AM
If fuel prices go up are we facing a new financial crisis? If people can't afford the gas in the gas guzzelers  will they walk away from them as we have seen people walk away from their homes? 
Feb 3, 2011 8:43AM
will they walk away from them as we have seen people walk away from their homes?
no way....jose! if you lose your home you can live out of your vehicle; with that, you have a roof over your head and heat! haven't you watched oprah on homeless vet's or watch 60 minutes about the people who have been foreclosed can buy a really sleek decked out conversion van complete with a shower!
Feb 3, 2011 10:06AM
The price of large trucks and SUV's will drop dramatically if gasoline reaches $3.75 per gallon.  Basically people buy, sell and trade their vehicles on a regular basis and you will see great prices on these vehicles.  Used truck prices are already fairly low and and they will drop even more when gas prices increase.  I believe there are many people out there that have multiple vehicles and they choose to drive whatever they want to drive.  People that are thrifty and want to save a little money will drive the smaller vehicles.  People that have a little extra coin dont mind paying extra for the fuel.  I wonder how many businesses suffer because consumers are more likely to pay for expesive gas and cut their purse strings in other areas.  There is not a one or two sentence statement that covers what will actually happen when ga**** the $4.00 per gallon this summer. 
Feb 3, 2011 10:40AM
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 10:49AM

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 11:16AM
Until we get in pain for an extended period with $5 per gallon gasoline we will not give up the gas guzzler. The only reason I have not is that where I live I am surrounded by huge pickups and SUVs and the gas efficient cars are not safe...if you get in a wreck you will get killed. It will be a slow process to wean us off fossil fuels.
Feb 3, 2011 11:31AM

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!

Feb 3, 2011 11:37AM

Why do some people always bring politics into everything?  The price of oil is based more on supply and demand than anything.  As countries like China and India become more like us in terms of energy consumption, worldwide demand will continue to grow.  It's not that we're running out of oil, we're just running out of cheap oil.  Throw in the Wall Street speculators, and you have a recipe for continued rising prices.  Even if politicians open up more areas for drilling, it will have only a marginal and temporary effect on supplies.  Imposing higher taxes on oil would curb demand in this country, but no politician who wants to be re-elected would dare consider that option.  So until alternatives, such as hydrogen, become competitive with oil, get used to paying higher prices at the pump.

Feb 3, 2011 11:49AM

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 11:53AM
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 11:54AM
I will make enough off my cows to buy fuel for my vehicles! Thanks to inflation  my animals are worth more now then before. I haven't seen anyone eat oil yet!!!!  Ethanol (corn) can't eat that!!! Sure make commodities go up in price.
Feb 3, 2011 12:38PM

"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 12:50PM

To all of you whining about $3.50 a gallon gas I have been paying $4.95 a gallon since September.  Sad to say that I own to “light duty trucks” but there is no way that you are going to get away with driving a mini cooper here.  Let me tell you I wish that I had $3.50 a gallon gas, they are projecting $7.00 a gallon this summer so remember that when you are crying about what you pay.

Feb 3, 2011 1:12PM
Every time gas prices go up, this article or one like it surfaces. And so do the excuses as to why each of you HAS to drive a gas guzzler. Like Gnome from Nome below for example. Your geograghy does not make it imperative to drive "light duty trucks". There are plenty of smaller cars w/ all wheel drive and great gas mileage. Or the breeder women who insist they HAVE to drive a mini-van because of their large family...or the single man who HAS to have an SUV, because of his dog...I know many who have large families, dogs, etc. who drive fuel efficient vehicles. The truth is, you have an over-consumptive life style. You waste gas, eat and feed your children way too much, waste water and other resources. If you're fine w/ that, then it's none of my or anyone's business...but call a spade a spade. Yo drive a mini van or a light truck because it's easier for you to fit behind the wheel.
Feb 3, 2011 1:24PM

what happened to the gas guzzler tax

Feb 3, 2011 1:47PM
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 1:53PM
This is yet another article aimed at trying to brainwash us into believing there is anything wrong with owning or driving large vehicles, which I might add, already get EXCELLENT MPG compared with similar vehicles a decade ago.  Yukons get you 16-18 mpg, similar to what modest cars got you 10 years ago.  Stop crying you liberal hippies.  This article says we are in a "habit" of liking large cars, as if to say that its an epidemic like chronic alcoholism, smoking, or diabetes. 

The most infuriating part of this whole green movement, is that they have gotten to today's youth; in schools, in college (which I currently am enrolled in), and television shows (Disney is by far the most corrupt).  Everyone is naive to the fact the government could lie to us, because they want peace with the same sacks of **** that don't mind flying planes into hardworking American's places of employment.  Americans will continue to buy large vehicles, because they are SUPERIOR IN EVERY SINGLE WAY.  I don't mind efficient or electric vehicles, as most people can't afford nor need a larger car to get around.  But lay off the auto industry and stop attacking cars as being the worst thing to happen to our planet.  Look at ALL of the technology around us that is a complete waste - smart phones, 3D LED flatscreen televisions, and the monstrosity of gadgets and electronics that follow suit.  Next to a house, a vehicle is the second most important (useful) investment anyone can make; all the rest is subject to be considered as a luxury, non-essential item.  Some people like large vehicles because they are capable of doing everything a small car can't, they are safe, they are comfortable to drive, and represent one of America's greatest attributes.  Do you really think we want to live like eurotrash in apartments on top of each other across the country, forced to drive go-karts because we live so close together?  Absolutely not. 

V8 America should be the new political party, with me as the head.  I represent everything good that America has and always will offer, and you s****ing bottom feeding liberal hippies are actually just extremely mentally diseased.  Out.

Feb 3, 2011 2:20PM

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 2:26PM

Why sacrifice now when you can wait for a full blown catastrophe.  So what if there will be more of us and less oil to go around in the future, better them than me.  I opt to pass the buck onto future generations, surely your kiddos will manage just fine.


Feb 3, 2011 2:33PM
We dont learn! Gas prices need to stay high.....most americans thought gas prices would go back down and stay down. the big suv's will always be around even at 5 bucks a gallon because we are stupid americans
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