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Complaining at the pump

Paul Andersen

The moaning at the gas pumps these days over high fuel prices would be pitiable if it weren’t so predictable.

Rather than ringing their hands over $50 fill ups, drivers should be

kicking themselves for consumer choices made at the car dealerships.

Today’s high gas prices are one domestic policy that Bush got right, even if it was by accident. If Bush did, in fact, collude with Saudi Prince Bandar to hike OPEC oil prices for political reasons, he’s giving Americans a telling glimpse into the future.

Bush may resort to price manipulations because he is faltering in the polls, and he is faltering in the polls because

of the oil war in Iraq. Instead of securing supplies of crude, the war has destabilized the region more than ever. America’s oil gluttony may really have to be tempered this time, and for the long term.

Going on a crash diet from foreign crude, however, will be painful given the entitlement most Americans feel toward our grossly disproportionate share of the world’s natural resources. As artificially deflated fuel prices suddenly go up, Americans face an assault on our most sacred of institutions – the automobile.

And yet there’s no room for complaining because it all goes back to the choices we make as consumers. Gas-guzzling monstrosities – the ignoble SUVs – are now gouging those who bought them, mostly for dubious reasons.

Vanity, a false sense of safety, status, image, power … these are among the perpetuating influences driving the SUV craze, which has been channeled through hyped advertising and consumer envy into a national passion.

Gluttony in one’s diet, another American pastime, is punishable by obesity and a panoply of diseases. Gluttony on the energy front has so far felt benign. Now, as fuel prices go up, Americans are feeling gas pains at the pump.

Before shedding tears of victimhood, look at the range of automobiles on the market today. There is no reason to buy a gas guzzler. The gap in fuel efficiency between the most efficient car and the least efficient SUV is wider than the Grand Canyon.

The Honda Insight is currently the most fuel-efficient car on the market, getting 60 miles per gallon in the city and 66 mpg on the highway. Other popular brands include Toyota’s Prius and VW’s Beetle and Jetta.

Anyone who drives one of these cars has at one time tapped the gas gauge to make sure it’s working. As an owner of a Jetta turbo diesel, I am amazed that anyone would want to navigate a boatlike behemoth instead of handling a Porschelike gas miser.

The most efficient pickup on the market today is the Ford Ranger 2WD, with 24 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. But that’s a two-wheel drive, and it’s not beefy enough for most truck or SUV fans, even if all they drive on is flat pavement.

Among the least efficient vehicles are the Ford 150 4WD and the Land Rover, both of which get a scandalous 12 mpg in the city and 16 mpg on the highway. For a cargo van, the prize goes to the GMC Savana AWD with 14 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway.

Encouraging such excess, the White House and Congress passed SUV tax incentives. For example, the owner of a Hummer, which gets less than 10 miles per gallon, receives a tax deduction of up to $34,000. This SUV deduction runs about $1 billion a year, paid for by efficiency conscious taxpayers like me.

When the Japanese invented the Toyota Prius hybrid (part gas, part electric), it was because of a challenge from their government. The Japanese realized the instability of global oil markets and remembered the oil shortages of 1973 and 1979.

The U.S. government made the same challenge to American auto manufacturers. It was met with scorn. Today, Toyota is the most profitable car maker on the market, while Ford and Daimler/Chrysler are rated barely above junk bond status.

Paul Andersen wonders what Alfred E. Newman would drive. His column appears on Mondays.


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