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Don't Trade Your Gas-Guzzler

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008 12:00 AM

Visits to the pump have become painful. They were bad enough when gasoline was $3 a gallon for regular unleaded. Prices now exceed $4 a gallon and seem headed toward $5 a gallon by summer's end.

Now, the full-size sport-utility vehicle that seemed like a good idea two years ago looks like the biggest consumer mistake you've ever made. Your lust for horsepower has come back to kick you in the pocket. You want to dump your ride, get out, get something that sucks less fuel. You want to reduce your pain at the pump.

Slow down!

Do the math. Taking a dump to relieve pain at the pump might be another big mistake.

Consider:

Look at it this way: If the aim of reducing your pain at the pump is to keep more money in your pocket, you aren't going to do it in a fit of economic hysteria -- dumping your gas-guzzler and buying something else without running the numbers. You are likely to wind up in a deeper financial mess.

So, what to do:

If you must buy another car, shop for used models first; and look for four-cylinder jobs. Check out www.greencarjournal.com for recommendations on the most fuel-efficient models, category by category. Check out www.repairpal.com for an authoritative rundown on how the used car or truck you are thinking about has held up in the real world.

Note: The same market that has slapped gas-guzzlers with super-low resale values has awarded gas-sippers with higher resale prices. (You will notice something similar occurring in new-vehicle sales as well. Fuel-efficient, four-cylinder models are king. Models with consumptive V-8 engines are going begging.)

If you must buy new, again, check out www.greencarjournal.com for the most intelligent recommendations on what fuel-sippers are available in the marketplace.

Keep in mind that going hybrid might not be the most intelligent move. Why? Hybrids continue to come with premiums. There are any number of traditional combustion engine cars that offer comparable fuel efficiency. Hybrid technology, especially that part pertaining to batteries, is changing rapidly.

I am not suggesting here that you should allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Current hybrid technology, most of it dependent on nickel-metal hydride batteries, is good. But it is by no means perfect. Nickel-metal hydride batteries are heavy. Weight is an enemy of fuel efficiency. Work is moving apace on lighter weight, more energy-efficient lithium ion and lithium polymer batteries. Somebody somewhere will soon have a battery breakthrough. When that happens, all hybrid vehicles with nickel-metal hydride batteries will become obsolete overnight.

That means people buying current-generation hybrid vehicles should think of them the way they think of laptops and iPods. The technology they bought today is good. But it is not perfect. That means it will be obsolete tomorrow. Enjoy what you've bought today. But be prepared to live with it tomorrow.

That's it. Think before you dump. Shop wisely.

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