Pain at the Pump Doesn't Faze New-Car Buyers

By Warren Brown
Sunday, January 29, 2006

The consensus was sacrifice, the need for Americans to accept that sharing bounty and limiting resource consumption will be necessary parts of their future, if they want to live in peace.

The reality was something different, highlighted by panel discussions, news conferences and automotive executive interviews held in conjunction with the 64th annual staging of the Washington Auto Show, which ends tonight at the Washington Convention Center.

To wit: Not many Americans are willing to sacrifice anything that will in any way lead to their immediate discomfort or inconvenience or upset their sense of entitlement to the better life, especially in the matter of personal transportation.

That may seem at odds with the conventional notion that we are a caring, compassionate people, conservative or otherwise. But take a look at one of the attitudinal markers -- an online survey of U.S. consumers' priority considerations in the purchase of a new car or truck, conducted by the Progressive Group of Insurance Companies.

You would think that with bullets flying, bombs exploding and people on all sides dying in resource wars overseas that fuel conservation would be uppermost in the minds of most Americans shopping for new vehicles. After all, it's America that's pouring huge amounts of blood and tax dollars into those global conflicts.

At the very least, you'd be tempted to wager that basic selfishness, reflected in concern about rising gasoline pump prices at home, would spark a rush toward more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. You'd be wrong on all counts.

The survey was done in cooperation with, an online service of the National Automobile Dealers Association, which represents most of the nation's franchised new-car dealers. The nationwide survey of 1,000 shoppers was done for a month and ended Jan. 4, as those shoppers were checking the NADA site for information on their prospective purchases.

According to Progressive's tally of results, the bottom line for those shoppers was the bottom line, the one signed at the point of sale at the dealership. Forty-six percent of those shoppers, the single largest bloc of respondents, put purchase price above everything else in their buying considerations. Thirty-one percent listed the make and model of the vehicle as their "most important" concern.

Performance and safety tied for third place as the "most important" consideration in the survey. What about fuel economy? Well, do you remember all of those media stories last summer about consumers supposedly dumping their sport-utility vehicles and other high-horsepower chariots for fuel-sippers? You remember the hype about gas-electric hybrids, much of which has been repeated at the Washington show?

What about fuel economy? It finished dead last in the survey, with only 3 percent -- repeat 3 percent -- of those polled listing it as their "most important" consideration.

If you think that's bad, 11 percent of those polled listed fuel economy as their "least important" concern, along with "least important" ratings for insurance costs (40 percent) and vehicle color (28 percent).

That's curious consumer thinking, as noted by the producers of the survey: "While consumers are most concerned about the cost of the car itself, they seem to discount the importance of how much it will cost them to actually own and operate it," the survey said.

Think about that. If people are too, well, myopic to consider the long-term effects of their vehicle purchase on their own financial well-being, how likely are they to be concerned about how that new car or truck will affect the environment or resource distribution in the United States, or abroad?

"Not very likely," said Michael J. Jackson, chairman and chief executive of AutoNation USA, one of the country's largest chain retailers of new cars and trucks.

Jackson, a member of the Washington Auto Show's panel on "Sustaining Personal Mobility in an Energy Challenged World," is something of a renegade in his profession. He has called for a federal levy of a dollar a gallon on regular unleaded gasoline, to be phased in over a period of several years or more, "just to send a message to the American people that the cheap-gasoline party is over."

Jackson, of course, does not have many supporters for that idea -- not in his industry, nor on Capitol Hill.

But he said that some kind of sacrifice is needed if we are to have any hope of squeaking through the next century without really big countries coming to blows over who gets the oil. "We can't possibly keep going the way we've been going," said Jackson, who concedes that he has made quite a handsome living selling the vehicles America says it wants to drive. "There's China, Africa, India, Russia, the Middle East. . . . They all want and need oil," Jackson said.

But the five panelists, from the federal government and industry, agreed that it is going to be very difficult to get the American public to buy the notion of sacrifice without some sort of a shock on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, which greatly disrupted petroleum production in the Gulf Coast last summer.

The panelists, industry executives and media people all returned to the show, where there were a number of small cars, alternatively fueled vehicles on display, including a diesel-electric hybrid Washington Metro bus by General Motors Corp. and National Flyer industries. But those products seemed to lack a healthy coalition of the willing among the public's show-goers, most of whom were attracted by the high-horsepower, earth-scorching stuff.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company