In almost serendipitous fashion, gasoline prices have plunged to their lowest level since 2010 just as the budget-stretching holiday season is upon us. According to AAA, the national average of a gallon of regular grade gasoline currently stands at $2.67, down nearly 30 cents from a month ago and almost a $1 from where prices were at this time last year.

The tumble in price is due to a few factors (the Wall Street Journal has a nice summary). Substantial increases in Canadian and U.S. production of crude oil over the past few years and additional output from Libya and Iraq have raised the global supply of oil. At the same time, slower growth in China and more efficient vehicles in the States have helped keep global demand for oil in check.

Compounding matters, OPEC views these longer-term developments as such a threat that it has decided to produce more oil than it needs to. The cartel hopes to drive prices down to a point where U.S. producers aren’t making enough revenue to offset their more costly methods of extraction. This would allow OPEC to gradually cut production, and increase prices, without losing business to non-OPEC competitors.

The swift decline in gasoline prices has generated a handful of articles that essentially question if a gas guzzler renaissance is upon us. The implication is that with gas once again below $3 per gallon, short-sighted consumers will abandon their miserly compact and midsize cars and return to the hulking, fossil fuel-incinerating SUVs like the ones driven back in the 2000s.


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While these stories make for eye-catching headlines, a rapid return to a guzzler-era probably isn’t in the cards. For starters, gas prices have routinely risen and fallen anywhere from 40 to 70-plus cents over the past five years. Given this, consumers are now familiar riders on the gas price rollercoaster and they know the old adage “what goes up, must come down” (and vice versa) all too well.

The increased tolerance to wild swings in gas prices has been visible in used vehicle demand over the years. Initially, consumers were quick to shun trucks in favor of compact and midsize cars when gas prices first began their electrocardiogram movement a few years ago. The resulting shifts in demand would have used car prices rise, and then fall, by thousands of dollars as gas prices waxed and waned. Over time, however, consumer reaction has moderated to the point that used car and truck prices now show little change through periods of gas price volatility.

Of course, the drop in gas prices that’s occurred since June is a bit more substantial than what we’ve experienced over the past few years, but it’s a stretch to think that consumers will so easily forget the volatile nature of energy prices, assume that cheaper gasoline will be around for an extended period of time (meaning years, not months), and as such, run out and snatch up trucks in droves.

The reality is that truck demand has been gradually improving for some time now, mainly because consumer appetite from compact crossover utilities, the most fuel efficient kind of truck, has taken off. In fact, compact utility share of total new vehicle sales grew by an average just under 10 percent in 2007 to 15.6 percent through September this year ― far and away the most of any segment over the period.

Sure, new mid-size and large utility sales were exceptional in November, but the result was due more to the introduction of numerous redesigned 2015 models (Toyota 4Runner, Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon, Ford Expedition, etc.) or incredibly sweet end-of-model year discounts.

Further, the lion’s share of mid-side size utilities on the market today are based on car platforms (even the venerable Jeep Grand Cherokee) and not the less efficient body-on-frame architecture of the past. Meanwhile, large utilities comprise less than a 2 percent sliver of the market, down from a nearly 5 percent share back in the early 2000s. The segment’s small footprint, and the years it would take for automakers to meaningfully ramp up production, makes it a long shot that large numbers of big utilities will hold sway over the nation’s roads any time soon.

As for large pickups, these are being purchased by people or businesses that actually need them, which is a reversal from what occurred last decade. Back in 2003 – 04 when driving large pickups was fashionable ― and oftentimes impractical ― personal use share of total new large pickup registrations was around 80 percent; today the figure stands at roughly 73 percent. Consumers without a distinct need for a large pickup won’t rush out and buy one simply because gas prices have fallen below $3 per gallon.


Of course fuel economy today is substantially better than it was 10 years ago as well. It’s common for a compact utility to achieve 27 to 29 miles per gallon in combined driving, while mid-size utilities can hit 20-plus miles per gallon. Even Chevrolet’s big Tahoe SUV is rated at 18 mpg for the 2015 model year, which is a nearly 30 percent improvement of the 2004 model’s 14 mpg.

At the end of the day, lower gas prices will help support truck demand, but they won’t ignite it. Recent memories of rapidly changing energy prices make it unlikely that we’ll see a substantial shift in demand away from cars and toward trucks (although cheaper gas won’t help hybrid or electric vehicle demand; see June’s edition of Perspective for background). And even if lower gas prices nudge some consumers toward a truck purchase, shoppers will find themselves in a truck whose fuel efficiency is far superior to the gas guzzlers of old.