As it is, fuel costs have already begun to spike because of a leap in crude oil costs (thanks, OPEC) just as refineries are beginning the transition to producing “summer grade” fuel intended to reduce smog during the warmer months. (Gas stations have until June 1 to begin selling summer fuel.) This annual event tends to adversely affect supply during the transition period, which tends to boost gas prices just when consumers are placing additional demand on the delivery system as they begin hitting the road for spring and summer vacations.
As it is, AAA says gas prices are already at a national average of $2.70 a gallon, which is nearly 30 cents higher than it was a year ago at this time. And keep in mind that’s the average cost. Those living in West Coast states like California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington, along with supply-challenged Alaska and Hawaii, are paying well over $3.00 a gallon, with Californians paying the highest pump prices among the 48 contiguous states at an average $3.54 a gallon for regular unleaded.
And as we’ve previously reported, many motorists are paying even higher fuel prices because an increasing number of what might otherwise be considered “regular cars,” like the Chevrolet Malibu and Nissan Sentra and other models with turbocharged engines, now require or at least “prefer” premium-grade gas that currently costs, on average, an additional 52 cents per gallon.
With the price of crude oil having climbed to around $71 a barrel (it was $51 last year), it’s already higher than the EIA’s original prediction of $63 a barrel this summer, and experts fear gas prices could rise even higher than expected.
“There is tremendous volatility in the oil and gasoline market,” explains AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano. “Crude oil is selling at high prices compared to previous years, and domestic gasoline demand has been high most of the winter, among the factors all driving gas prices up and draining consumers’ wallets.”
Based on their current predictions, the EIA says the average U.S. household will spend an additional $190 to keep their cars’ gas tanks filled this summer. But don’t expect higher fuel prices to send SUV-crazed consumers back to their subcompact economy cars any time soon.
That’s because compact crossover SUVs are firmly entrenched as the best-selling models in virtually every automaker’s lineup (full-size domestic-brand pickup trucks excepted), and that’s not expected to change anytime soon. Singles, small families and empty nesters prefer them for their added utility and comfort and are willing to pay nominally higher fuel costs in the process. While compact cars still deliver better fuel economy than same-size crossovers, given their lighter curb weights and slipperier aerodynamics – the best get as much as 40 miles per gallon on the highway – the latter remain reasonably efficient, with the best non-hybrid models rated at around 34 mpg on the open road. The difference comes to about $50 a year at current gas prices.
Still, a recent AAA survey suggests 25% of consumers would feel compelled to make vehicular lifestyle changes if gas prices were to reach $2.75 a gallon – which it well could this summer – with 40% suggesting $3.00 would be their proverbial tipping point. Although the vast majority of those queried said higher fuel costs would force them to combine errands or trips (79%) or simply drive less (73%), only 46% said they’d be willing to drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle.