This month, gas prices are almost a dollar lower per gallon than they were a year ago. But experts say they will climb significantly the moment any sort of economic recovery occurs.
And thanks to that prolonged dip in fuel costs (oil prices have remained between $65 and $80 a barrel for 10 straight weeks), sales of compact and subcompact cars have plunged. Yet limited-edition cars like the $105,000, 470-horsepower Jaguar XJL Supercharged Neiman Marcus Edition, which gets a combined 17 miles per gallon, are selling out in a matter of minutes in special online sales.
Fans of the Ford F-Series trucks and Chevrolet Suburban are taking advantage of the reprieve as well, especially as the end-of-2009 sales season draws to a close. Each of those vehicles reported sales increases of more than 3 percent over September of last year — some big SUVs even saw bumps as high as 23 percent.
Attractive as those vehicles may be at the moment, they're likely to lose their appeal as soon as the economy shows signs of improvement — they're some of the most fuel-thirsty on the market today.
Behind the numbers
To determine this year's cars with the worst fuel economy, we evaluated data provided by Vincentric, a Michigan-based automotive data and analysis firm, as well as information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. We broke our list into vehicle segments to provide a more accurate picture of which cars don't compete, efficiency-wise, with their peers. Otherwise, our list would be limited to low-volume, high-end performance cars and luxury SUVs.
President Obama's administration has taken two tacks in encouraging fuel efficiency despite the current low gas prices, Stephan Gallon wrote recently in a R.L. Polk & Co. report: grants, like the $2.4 billion given to develop electric and hybrid batteries; and legislation, like the CAFÉ standards requiring vehicles to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.
Automakers are working toward efficiency in different ways. Nissan and Tesla have developed electric technology: Tesla with its $102,000 Roadster, and Nissan with the LEAF, expected to cost $30,000 next year. Others have developed hybrids and microcars.
But none of those is the silver bullet to gasoline independence, says Brian Gush, Bentley's director of chassis and powertrain engineering. "They are all part of the answer."
In the meantime, there's still plenty of room on the road — and in the hearts of consumers — for big, gas-guzzling vehicles. Last month, sales of all SUVs and trucks were down 29 percent, about even with sales of cars. But the $79,275 Land Rover Range Rover, which gets a combined 15.5 miles to the gallon, and the $56,050 Infiniti QX56, which gets a combined 14.5 miles to the gallon, both beat sales results of September 2008.
The fact that consumers have seemingly forgotten the all-time high of $4.11 a gallon in July 2008 is to be expected, experts say.
"I'm kind of embarrassed for the American buying public because once the fuel prices started to settle out a little bit, many of us go back to our old kind of 'flaunting it' ways," says James Bell, an auto market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, an Irvine, Calif.-based auto valuation company. "The SUV market hasn't really dried up and disappeared the way we thought it might after the first fuel-price scare."