by Bill Kwong
Last summer, you may recall, gas prices spiked. Depending upon where you lived, and depending on the grade of gas you bought, you may have paid as much as $5 per gallon. Think of it--a hundred bucks to fill a 20-gallon tank.
Naturally, this led to interesting times. People significantly curtailed their driving. Sales of pickups and SUVs crashed to a halt as though those vehicles had careened at full-chat into the walls of Fort Ticonderoga. Sales of thrifty cars, especially hybrid vehicles such as the Prius, took off as if rocket-propelled.
Then, for reasons few of us out here in the proletariat completely understand, gas prices collapsed--falling, in some cases, to levels not seen for several years.
Sales of hybrid vehicles tapered off–-way off. And against all odds, sales of pickups and SUVs started to, um, pick up again. And, most surprising, we began to see stories like, "48 mpg is nice, but hybrids don't add up right now."
An analyst is quoted as saying, "The cost-benefit analysis doesn't support the decision to buy one of these higher-priced hybrids today."
How soon we forget. It’s true, hybrids generally cost a bit more than comparable conventional vehicles. But the story also tips its hat toward something we all know, in our heart-of-hearts, to be true: The cost of fuel almost certainly will rise again.
So, yes--at today’s gas prices, it just might take a while to break even on the premium paid for a hybrid vehicle. But that, we might argue, qualifies as short-term thinking – and it doesn’t begin to address the environmental benefits of hybrid vehicles.
The last time gas prices spiked, the 48-mpg EPA rating of the Prius wasn’t enough for many people. They wanted more, and of course we’re working on that. In fact, our new 2010 Prius is expected to carry an EPA-rating for 50 mpg/city. When the next gas-price spike comes--and the cautious among us are betting that another one probably will come--48 mpg, or 50 mpg ratings, likely will look pretty good. That’s just one of the reasons that all major manufacturers are hard at work not on new trucks and SUVs, but on new vehicles powered by alternative powertrains that sip fuel the way you might sip a wee dram of $100-per-bottle single-malt Scotch.
All of which is to say that when you do the hybrid numbers, it might be wise to ponder the future. A tank of gas lasts however long it lasts for you. A week, maybe? But a motor vehicle usually is something we keep for several years or more. We all hope that gas prices don’t spike again. But if you bet, like we do, that they will, long-term thinking would seem to be called for when you do the hybrid numbers.
Originally published on the Toyota Open Road blog on Jan. 30, 2009.
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