Return of the Jetta: Mileage matters again

Paul Denison still remembers the day he vowed never to buy a sport-utility vehicle. He had borrowed a friend's Chevy Suburban to drive a group of kids to Portland, Ore. On his way back to Eugene, he pulled into a gas station to fill up. He pulled out $45 poorer.

"It was a real shock," he says. "If I ever toyed with buying a sport-utility vehicle, the idea went right out of my mind after that."

Mr. Denison represents a smug new phenomenon - the return of the miserly driver.

These are the people who spirit around in Volkswagen Rabbits, Toyota Corollas, Honda Civics, Ford Fiestas, and other fuel-stingy cars from the 1970s that we all love to laugh at. Not any more.

As gas prices rise like helium, those who have hung onto their econo-boxes - or purchased modern equivalents - are pulling into Mobil stations with smirks on their faces.

Someone swears he even saw a Gremlin the other day.

"The first time I saw a Lincoln Navigator, I was horrified," says Doug Barlow, who works for the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta and who still drives around in a 1988 Plymouth Voyager. "Maybe SUVs are OK for going through the woods, but I don't think any of those are taken off road. And they emit five times the pollutants that smaller vehicles do."

With the economy at an all-time high, it seems Americans have forgotten the oil crisis of the 1970s. Ford Explorers and Jeep Cherokees still dominate the roads. Asking about gas mileage at the dealership remains a quaint thing of the past.

Yet those who do still have their fuel-efficient cars of the past - now delicately tuned and tinkered with - are getting the last laugh at the pump. Denison, for instance, gets at least 30 miles a gallon in his 1987 Volkswagen GTI. Actually, he's not sure what he gets. He stopped calculating a long time ago. What he does know is that he and his wife, who carpool to work, sometimes go weeks before needing to refill the tank.

Driving a Taurus, with pride

In addition to his Voyager, Mr. Barlow and his wife toodle around in a 1993 Ford Taurus. Both vehicles get about 30 m.p.g., but neither is used much. The Barlows prefer to walk, ride the bus, or carpool.

Barlow vividly remembers the gas lines of 1973. He was living in North Carolina at the time and traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard in a VW van, selling his homemade jewelry at craft shows. "I was much more dependent on cars back then," he admits. "I remember once I got in line at 5 in the morning because I had to get to this one show. The gas station opened at 7 a.m., and I wasn't even the first one in line."

He wonders: Was I the only one who learned from that?

While there has been some sticker shock at the pump, most drivers seem to be taking the price hikes in stride. They are filling up, hopping in, and heading out - same as before. Consumers haven't begun to squawk, largely because of the strong economy.

"Some people are complaining, but it's not stopping their intent to travel," says Geoff Sundstrom of the American Automobile Association in Heathrow, Fla. "Nobody is talking about trading in their SUVs or forming carpools."

But experts agree consumers may begin to reexamine their driving patterns if gas prices do reach $1.80 to $2 a gallon, as some predict they could by this summer. What it will take, they say, is sustained high prices coupled with a downturn in the economy - as was the case in the 1970s.

"We're already starting to see some backlash to the SUV," says Howard Geller, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in Washington. "Some models haven't been selling as well. If you have a Tahoe and Suburban that gets 12 miles to the gallon, you don't want to pay $60 to fill your tank every week."

The high gas prices are coming at a propitious time for fuel-efficiency advocates. The first mass-produced hybrid cars have reached or will soon hit the market: the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. They have small gas engines with powerful electric batteries. Unlike electric cars that need to be plugged in often, these batteries store energy while driving to maximize fuel economy.

The two-seater Honda gets 61 m.p.g. in the city and 70 on the highway. The larger Toyota gets 50 to 55 m.p.g. Both will sell for under $20,000. Ford has also announced plans for a similar hybrid in 2003.

"Maybe if these prices keep up, Ford will step-up production," says Mr. Geller.

Still, many people still like SUVs because they have good visibility, lots of room, and are relatively safe. Fuel-efficient cars, on the other hand, still labor under the image of being small, sluggish, and dangerous.

But that's not necessarily true anymore. "If you want a large SUV that will haul 3/4 of a ton up a 30 percent grade, be safer than safest car,... get about 120 m.p.g., and emit nothing but hot drinking water, we now know how to do that," says Amory Lovins, vice president of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo., and a long-time alternative-energy guru.

Dr. Lovins, who's considering buying one of the new hybrids coming out this summer, has been crusading for more fuel-efficient vehicles since the 1970s. He believes the price of gasoline will become irrelevant as gasoline/electric vehicles turn into hydrogen/electric vehicles in the next decade.

Unlearned lessons

But for now, drivers are subject to the volatility of OPEC. While some experts say a lot of things would have to go wrong to reach $2 a gallon, prices will definitely get worse before they get better, says Sarah Emerson, managing director of the Energy Security Analysis Inc. in Wakefield, Mass.

She admits that the US didn't learn anything from the oil crisis of the 1970s. "We are a driving society," she says, talking on a car phone on her way to pick up her kids. "If you look at our gasoline tax compared with the rest of world, it's almost nonexistent."

Fed up with always having to stop for gas, Ms. Emerson recently traded in her Jeep Cherokee for a Volvo station wagon. She knew higher gasoline prices were coming, but couldn't avoid at least 50 miles of commuting each day. "You have to drive, so you just grin and bear it."

Jennie Caine of Atlanta, however, is not grinning. She's tired of the brown cloud that hangs over Atlanta. She drives a 1997 Honda Civic, which gets 35 m.p.g. and costs $10 to fill. Her husband, Bob, drives a 1991 Honda Accord.

Ms. Caine says she doesn't feel superior to people who drive SUVs; she just wants them off the road. "They might be helpful if you lived on top of a mountain or in the middle of a swamp, but we live in Atlanta. I hate 'em."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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