Big Gas Prices Lure Buyers to Small Cars

Americans are buying small cars at a rate not seen since the energy crisis of the 1970s brought the Pinto and the Gremlin. Industry analysts point to soaring gas prices as the reason for the trend. Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine, talks with Andrea Seabrook.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Your days of being penned in on the interstate by enormous SUVs may be, finally, coming to an end. Numbers released this week show a startling trend -one in five cars sold in the U.S. last month was a compact or subcompact car. The big reason, according to people who watch the car business, gas prices.

One of those industry watchers is Csaba Csere. He's editor in chief of Car and Driver Magazine, and he joins us now by phone from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. CSABA CSERE (Editor in Chief, Car and Driver Magazine): Happy to be here.

SEABROOK: So, when was the last time Americans were this interested in buying small cars?

Mr. CSERE: Probably the last time gas was relatively expensive, which would have been the early 80s. American drivers respond very strongly to gas prices. You know, this is totally predictable.

SEABROOK: Journalists and industry watchers have been predicting this, as you say, for a couple of years now, as gas prices have gone higher and higher and higher and higher. Have we now reached the tipping point where it's so high, the gas prices are so high, that consumers are actually changing their behavior?

Mr. CSERE: Yes. And in fact they really already started in previous years. You know, last year, for example, the bestselling SUVs in the country were the Honda CRV, the Ford Escape and the Toyota Rav 4. All of them car-based SUVs, and all of them on the small side. Gas prices now have been high for about three years, and I think people are believing that this is the new permanence.

SEABROOK: So, are the carmakers responding?

Mr. CSERE: Well, they are, but the car business is a very long lead-time business. It takes roughly three years to make any kind of change in a car. So, you know, the cars that are going to come on the market this fall, they were sort of cast in stone in 2005 and 2006, before this new paradigm had occurred. So we're going to see a lot of small models but we're going to see big models as well because they're in the pipeline and they can't be stopped.

SEABROOK: What does that mean for American companies - Ford, GM - that have made an awful lot of money from big, big trucks and SUVs?

Mr. CSERE: Well, they're the ones that are hurt the most by this because of their sales, the American car companies have traditionally been 60 to 70 percent in the big pickups and the SUVs. But it also, it's not just a question of sales, it's also their profitability.

A company like GM might have been 65 percent of their sales were trucks but probably 110 percent of their profits were from the trucks, and they may have lost money on cars. So, they not only have to shift over to car production but they have to come up with cars that they can make some money on.

SEABROOK: Csaba Csere, in your estimation, is the age of the SUV over?

Mr. CSERE: I think the age of the classical truck-based big SUV is probably over. There's a lot of people who are buying big SUVs as a fashion statement. Those are the people when gas prices go high who decide that they can't afford anymore and go for a more sensible choice.

SEABROOK: Bye-bye, Hummer.

Mr. CSERE: That's right.

SEABROOK: Csaba Csere is the editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. CSERE: My pleasure.

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Gas Prices Continue Climbing

The cost of gas reached a new high on Tuesday, escalating to a national average of $3.51 per gallon — almost 66 cents higher than the price a year ago. The sharp rise has been driven, in part, by the increase in the cost of crude oil, now near $120, and the declining value of the dollar.

The sticker shock may not end soon. Here's a guide to what's going on at the pump.

What's driving up prices now?

The falling dollar, the transformation of commodity markets into financial markets and steady global demand for oil are all contributing factors, says Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Economy.com and an economic adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.

"Given the turmoil in the credit markets, investors are turning to commodities and oil as a trading vehicle," Zandi explains. "It doesn't take a whole lot of money" flowing out of the bond or stock market and into oil or natural gas to drive up prices.

Typically during a recession in the United States, demand for oil falls because people make a conscious decision to drive less. But any decline in U.S. fuel consumption has been offset by greater demand for all kinds of fuel in emerging economies, which Zandi says are doing well and therefore contributing to the price escalation.

Strong global demand is likely to increase, not decrease, pressure on U.S. gas and oil prices. "China, India and other developing countries [that] are developing their economies –and a middle class — just keep putting more pressure on the supply of crude oil to turn into energy for themselves," says Jim Boyd, vice chairman of the California Energy Commission.

Is there any chance prices will fall soon?

No. Gas prices are rising quickly. At the beginning of the year, a gallon cost $3. Analysts and economists view the rise to more than $3.50 as a step along the way to prices that may exceed $4.

Is any relief coming?

Last week in Congress, Sen. John McCain proposed suspending the federal gas tax between Memorial Day and Labor Day this year as a measure of relief for consumers during the height of the driving season. The federal tax is 18.4 cents per gallon of gas and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel.

The question to ask about such plans, says Billy Pizer, an economist with the Washington, D.C., think tank Resources for the Future, is how much of the money will flow into the hands of consumers versus corporations.

Some economists say that suspending the tax will only promote greater consumption and drive prices up — sending more money to oil producers, not consumers.

Are Americans feeling particularly squeezed because oil is priced in dollars and our currency is weak?

Zandi says the downturn in the U.S. economy, which he believes is in a recession, is taking a toll in a variety of ways.

"Nothing is going right for consumers in particular," says Zandi. "We're losing jobs, the stock market is down. House prices are falling. Gas and food prices are rising. It's all very debilitating, so the higher gas prices hurt more in that kind of context."

Will prices drop once the summer driving season ends?

After summer, gas prices typically do fall — but it depends on the price of crude oil, economists say. In the fall, the problem may shift – especially for consumers in colder U.S. regions —to increased costs for heating homes.

The Southeast, with a larger concentration of lower-income households, is typically hardest hit by rising gas and oil prices because residents spend proportionately more on energy, says Zandi.

Will we ever return to gas at $2 a gallon?

It's unlikely, especially in the near term.

"Every penny increase in the gasoline costs the American consumer $1 billion annually," says Zandi. "If we go from $3 to $4 that means $100 billion in extra cost."

Will the current pricing scenario hasten the use and development of new fuels and vehicles?

As more consumers feel pinched at the pump, their discomfort may spark individual and corporate action. "High prices in the market create responses on both the supply and demand side for fuel," says Pizer. This translates into consumers trying to save gas by driving less or searching for cars with higher fuel economy, he says. On the supply side, companies may turn to conventional sources for fuel that were not profitable in the past because they were difficult to obtain, unconventional sources that may have higher production costs or alternative fuels, he explains.

"I do feel sorry for the American consumer," says Boyd. "We've predicated our lifestyle on almost the God-given right to cheap gasoline. It's a rude awakening — a permanent awakening — we've got to have a mixed portfolio of transportation fuels. And we have to have more efficient motor vehicles."

Why are gas prices higher in California?

Since the early 1990s, to comply with federal law and its own stringent air quality standards, California has produced and utilized a different blend of gas that is more costly to produce. On Tuesday, the California retail price was $3.86, according to the California Energy Commission — 35 cents higher than the national average. Boyd attributes a third of the price difference to production costs. The remainder, he says, is because demand exceeds supply.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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