US Drivers Steering around High Gas Costs ; Sales Figures Show Interest in SUVs Is in Rapid Decline, but Interest in Hybrid Automobiles Is Soaring

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Matt Jones just drove his Honda Accord from hereto Las Vegas with the moon roof closed, windows up, air conditioning off, and trunk carefully emptied of excess weight. "I saved a quarter tank of gas each way," he says. "That's a lot of money these days."

Atlanta suburbanite Charlene Mayfield got fed up spending more than $350 a month in gasoline for her 80-mile commute, so she sent an intra-company SOS looking for van poolers. She got a dozen responses in 10 minutes. "Now we each spend no more than $68 a month," she says.

Brett Greenberg, a consultant in Boston who helps firms accomplish more tasks online, says business is up 40 percent. "People are realizing the giant cost savings of not traveling for everything," he says. "That attraction is accelerating rapidly."

As Americans have done in earlier energy crises, they are rushing to take the pinch out of filling up at the pump. While history teaches that such energy-saving changes in behavior are often short- lived, lasting only until prices fall, this time may be different, many experts say. Or at least, they add, it should be.

That's because even though the current swell in prices may be caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the national average had reached $2.61 a gallon before the storms struck.

The long-term trend toward higher gas prices, experts say, will continue. These experts point to the rise of energy consumption in China, Indonesia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe and say that is unlikely to offset new US and Canadian discoveries in Alberta and in Sakhalin, Russia, and the return to use of damaged Gulf facilities.

Experts say the current situation is a study in what could be done to achieve significant collective and individual savings, should consumers question entrenched habits of gasoline use.

"We've come a long way in understanding how dramatic savings are right in front of us if we just consider new ways of thinking and behaving," says Siim Soot, research professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Besides simple ways of saving gas - from closing moon roofs to reduce drag to properly inflating tires to maximize mileage - there are bigger commuter-lifestyle options such as biking, public transportation, carpooling, and walking. Beyond that are larger questions - from how and where to expand cities and build businesses to the burgeoning development of telecommuting.

"How seriously should we think about making such changes more permanent as we face a future of significantly increased competition for oil around the world?" asks Dr. Soot.

The evidence of change afoot and the possibility for more is all around, he and others say.

A just-released survey by Kelley Blue Book Marketing, for example, showed that 59 percent of current US car buyers say gas prices have either changed their minds or strongly influenced purchase decisions - an all-time high. Forty-two percent say they would seriously consider a fuel-efficient vehicle if gas prices go another 25 cents above the current national average (which was $3.07 per gallon on Sept. 5).

"With prices for gas now skyrocketing above the psychological threshold of $3 per gallon in many areas, consumers are more interested in fuel-efficient cars than at any time in the last two decades," says Jack Nerad, market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

That is becoming increasingly evident in many American cities, where car owners are trading in gas guzzlers for smaller-engine cars. SUV owners are even downsizing to smaller SUVs. And there are waiting lists at some car companies offering gas/electric hybrid cars, such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid. …