Gas Roots: Why Few Care about Fuel Efficiency
By Lawrence Ulrich

(MONEY Magazine) – Sales of the biggest SUVs took a hit in April, spawning suggestions that record gas prices will drive Americans into more fuel-friendly models. To which I say, Hah! More likely, consumers will grit their teeth as the $2-a-gallon pump satisfies their thirsty friend: The family SUV. The luxury sedan. The mighty pickup. Here's why.

The longer-term trend shows a growing majority of U.S. consumers choosing lower-mileage trucks (SUVs, pickups, minivans) over cars. Even as prices gush higher, we're spending a smaller share of income on gas and other energy than at almost any time since the late '70s.

My own gas-roots theory? Pumps that take credit cards allow pain-free fill-ups; forced to pull out a fifty instead, there's no denying the dent in your wallet.

Now before I lecture anyone, this auto writer will admit to a jones for fast cars, some frugal, many not. Funny how we shake our fists at SUVs but excuse the 15-mpg Porsche. That's the conundrum. Americans drive what they want to drive. They're not much into free advice--especially if it involves trading the Lexus in for some wonky compact.

Small cars remain the short answer to fuel savings. They're widely available, but few buy 'em. Size and power rule the roads instead. The typical new model topped 200 horsepower for the first time in 2003, nearly double the output of the early 1980s. For all its waiting-list hype, the Prius hybrid does a fraction of the business that Toyota's more popular cars and trucks do.

Sure, Detroit (and Tokyo, the recent king of monster SUVs) could take the lead on fuel economy. Yet there's a big disincentive: U.S. automakers, especially, earn huge profits on each SUV; they sell most cars at a loss.

A government kick in the chassis is perhaps overdue, but where to start? The average 2003 vehicle weighed 4,021 pounds, the heaviest since 1976--thanks largely to the rise of SUVs. Cutting weight would save fuel, but critics say it could make the nation's fleet scrawny and less safe. Smaller, more efficient engines are an obvious fix, but consumers expect the power to which they've grown accustomed.

The industry gets the message: Americans are all for better mileage, as long as it costs them nothing. The next wave of hybrid models? All roomy SUVs and sedans. Don't bet on the extinction of Escalades or a heart attack for Hummer. No earth-shattering mileage, no armies of subcompacts. Not until we're willing to give up something, anything, in return for fuel economy. --LAWRENCE ULRICH