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Rightsize Your Car

Published: December 12, 2008

Even with falling gas prices, you can save big money while sacrificing little.

America’s longtime love affair with the big car hit a pothole last summer, when skyrocketing gas prices pushed more and more drivers toward smaller vehicles. As the price of gasoline plummeted in the fall, car dealers wondered whether the country’s rediscovered interest in fuel economy and mpg ratings would remain strong.

If gasoline is not $4 a gallon — or even $3 a gallon — is it still important to trade in your gas-guzzling wheels for something more economical? For many, the answer is still yes. Industry experts say the price of gas is likely to be all over the chart in the coming months and years, so there’s no telling when it might climb back up to uncomfortable levels. Just as important, anyone considering unloading a less economical vehicle will find that it’s not an easy deal to make when gas prices are at their peak. A time when “rightsizing” your car feels not quite as urgent may actually be the best time to do so.

Fred Rozell, retail pricing director for the Oil Price Information Service, was not surprised to see the price of gasoline crash this past fall. “We’ve been forecasting this for a while,” he says. “When it was $4, people never thought it would be under $3 again. What we’re going to see over the next few years is great volatility in fuel prices.”

Car dealers have definitely seen more interest in fuel-efficient choices, says Paul Taylor, chief economist with the National Automobile Dealers Association. “Overall, the small-car category is up 6.2 percent year-to-date,” he says. There’s also a lot of interest in crossover utility vehicles, those models that in some ways resemble gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles but are based on car chassis and, therefore, get better mileage.

“The sweet spot has been the crossover utility vehicle space,” he says. “Sales of crossovers has reached nearly 3 million in yearly volume.” Earlier this decade, people bought about that many SUVs in a year, but that volume is down by about a third now.

Why don’t more people rightsize their wheels? Some have tried but have found that their gas-guzzling trade-in is no longer worth enough to make a deal feasible, with a trade-in value far lower than the amount needed to pay off the loan. That situation may be on the mend, Taylor says, with gas prices in retreat. For example, while high gas prices resulted in lower SUV trade-in values, every dollar that the price of gas drops can add back as much as $2,000 to the trade-in value of a relatively new SUV, he says.

Of course, a lot of people who drive gas guzzlers have an all-American aversion to deprivation. They don’t want to give up the benefits of the wheels they love. But the reality is that achieving better gas mileage needn’t demand sacrifice when it comes to comfort and luxury. There are plenty of moves you can make that preserve what you love the most about your less economical car, while offering significant relief at the pump. Following are some possibilities, with fuel economy statistics courtesy of the federal government (check out fueleconomy.gov to see how your vehicle compares with others).

Escaping From Your Grand Cherokee

So you love driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee, but cringe when you pull up to the pump. No wonder. Its city/highway combined mileage is 15 mpg. Even at the more reasonable place where gas prices arrived in October, a 2009 four-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee with a 5.7-liter gasoline engine cost $4.43 to propel 25 miles. Now consider how much your wallet would appreciate a switch to a 2009 four-wheel-drive Ford Escape Hybrid. We’re still talking SUV here, but the combined mileage is nearly double, at 28 mpg. Driving 25 miles in this vehicle costs just $2.38, and the average owner would pay $1,238 less per year to keep the tank filled. The planet benefits, too: the Ford emits 6.6 tons of carbon dioxide over the course of a year, while the Jeep churns out 12.2. If you’d rather stick with a gasoline-burner, you could opt for a Pontiac Vibe crossover utility vehicle. Order it with a five-speed manual transmission and your mileage will be 24, your cost per 25 miles will be $2.77, and your carbon footprint will be 7.7 tons.

From One Flagship to Another

For a luxury ride, it’s hard to beat the Audi A8 L, with a 12-cylinder engine and a raft of amenities. But it’ll cost you at the pump — $4.88 per 25 miles — partly because it requires premium fuel and partly because its combined city/highway fuel economy is 15 mpg. On one hand, the flagship Kia Amanti is no Audi, but it does have leather seats, an Infinity sound system, a V-6 that delivers 264 horsepower, and fuel economy of 19 using regular unleaded. Make this switch and you’ll save $832 a year on fuel, and reduce your carbon emissions by about a quarter.

Gotta Have a Camry

It’s among the world’s most popular cars, and with gas mileage of 23, the Camry outfitted with a 3.5-liter engine is not too bad at the pump. But you can do even better, without sacrificing anything on amenities. Just swap it for a Camry Hybrid, watch your fuel economy jump to 34, save an average of $563 per year, and cut your annual CO2 emission from 8.0 tons to 5.4.

Another Kind of Gas

For fuel economy, the standard Honda Civic is a great option, with an average combined city/highway economy of 29 miles per gallon and an average annual bill of $1,377. Not bad at all. Honda also makes a version of the Civic that runs on compressed natural gas, which has lower carbon emissions and an average annual fuel bill that’s nearly identical, at $1,366. You’ll do best with the hybrid Civic, though, with its gas mileage of 42 and annual fuel bill of $950.

Midsize Makeover

The Dodge Avenger is a decent choice when it comes to economy, averaging 20 mpg, which translates into an annual average fuel cost of $1,995. But you’ll get just about the same interior room and even more trunk space in the Hyundai Elantra, along with fuel economy of 28 mpg. Trade in for an Elantra and you’ll save $571 per year in fuel costs, and put out 6.6 tons of CO2 annually, compared with 9.2 from the Dodge.
Keep on Truckin’

Pickups have been popular for years, not just on the farm but in suburbia. High gas prices have driven some people away from their pickups, but others have found ways to economize. If you drive a four-wheel-drive Chevy Silverado with a 6.2-liter engine, you’re looking at an annual fuel cost of $2,849. Trade it in for a Silverado 15 Hybrid 4WD and your mileage will jump from 14 to 20, while your average annual cost will drop by $854. The planet will appreciate the 3.9 fewer tons of carbon dioxide emitted by your hybrid every year.
Totally Electric and Sporty

Everyone loves the Ford Mustang, and the current models are just as cool as those from the late 1960s. You’ll pay $4.58 to drive this classic 25 miles, using the premium gas that’s recommended for maximum performance. Or, you could really turn heads behind the wheel of an all-electric Tesla Roadster. This is every bit as sporty — and powerful, too — able to accelerate from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds. You’ll go 244 miles on a full charge, but the best part is that the same 25 miles you paid $4.58 to drive in your Mustang will cost you just 85 cents worth of electricity in your Tesla, built by California-based Tesla Motors. That’s an average annual savings of $2,239. And there’s no carbon emission at all, compared with 11.4 tons per year from the Mustang.

The Ethanol Option

There are pluses and minuses associated with ethanol-based fuels. On the positive side, your car will pump out a lot less carbon if it’s burning E85 gasoline, which is mostly ethanol. But doing so cuts your fuel economy, and it can cost more, too; so if you’re looking to pocket some savings, you may be disappointed. Consider the Chevrolet Impala flex-fuel version that lets you take your pick between fuels. Fill it with gasoline and you’ll be generating 8.0 tons of CO2 per year, compared with 6.5 if you burn E85 instead. But your annual fuel cost using E85 will be $2,884, compared with $1,736 for gasoline.

So, will American interest in rightsizing vehicles continue, with gas prices lower? The jury is still out. As Rozell with the Oil Price Information Service notes, “When the price was $1 a gallon, people didn’t give miles per gallon a thought. When it got to $1.75, people were screaming, but it was still more of an inconvenience. When it moved to $3 and $4, it was on their minds.”

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