SUV Drivers Burned Twice: At the Pump, on the Car Lot

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Americans' love affair with 22-inch rims, eight cylinders and four-wheel drive wrapped in an 8,000-pound package is over. And the breakup is going to cost.

With $4-a-gallon gas coming between drivers and their very large vehicles, consumers are dropping their once-beloved rides, fast. But not fast enough, it seems. As the price of gas has gone up, the value of sport-utility vehicles has gone down.

In the past six months, the price of a used Chevrolet Suburban has dropped as much as $8,000, said Mike Parker, manager of used-car sales at Lustine Toyota/Dodge in Woodbridge.

For those determined to swap their fuel-thirsty behemoths for gas-sipping subcompacts, the glut increasingly means taking a financial hit. In the worst cases, declining SUV values leave owners owing more money to the bank than their vehicle is worth.

The question they face is: Which is worse for the wallet -- the cost of gas or the money lost selling the vehicle?

Take the Chevrolet Suburban, one of the largest, most powerful and least fuel-efficient SUVs on the market. It has long been a favorite with large families, law enforcement officials, and luggers of campers and trailers.

Thomas Dove of Mechanicsville, Va., put his 2005 Chevy Suburban up for sale online a week and a half ago. He bought it less than two years ago for $28,000 because he wanted a vehicle that could pull a camper. He is now asking $16,500 -- when the Kelley Blue Book value is $19,180.

"I had planned on clearing $3,000," Dove said, "but at this point with gas prices, I'm going to sell it for what I owe just to get out of" the loan.

He hasn't received a single inquiry. For now, Dove, a mechanic, plans to let the Suburban sit in his driveway. Meanwhile, he'll keep paying his car loan of approximately $400 a month until he gets his asking price, or something close to it.

"It's a tough time to sell an SUV," he said. "I was kind of hoping."

The infatuation with SUVs began a decade ago. Early adopters felt as if they dominated the road, savoring the ability to scale rocky hillsides and barrel through mud, even if their tires never left asphalt. Cubicle dwellers and soccer moms were prepared for anything -- a flood, a snowstorm, an eight-hour ride to grandma's house.

Through the years, SUV owners drove on, unfazed by the danger of rollovers or environmentalists' criticisms. In 2002, the SUV's heyday, one in eight drivers owned one, according to the Census Bureau. Back then, Criswell Chevrolet/Hummer in Gaithersburg sold 50 SUVs every weekend, said Neil Kopit, director of marketing for the dealership.

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