People seldom say what they mean, and seldom do what they say. Take the matter of consumer response to rising gasoline prices.
Conventional wisdom, often the stuff of daily journalism reinforced by "man-on-the-street" interviews, says people are turning away from gas-guzzlers, having been chastened by gasoline pump prices that are now around $3 a gallon for regular unleaded.
That conventional wisdom is given the appearance of unassailable truth by automotive industry survey results, such as those published Sept. 7 by Harris Interactive in cooperation with Kelley Blue Book Marketing Research.
The survey was conducted Aug. 26-29 on the Kelley Blue Book Web site, Kbb.com. Two thousand prospective car buyers were interviewed. They were adults 18 and older who said they planned to purchase a car or truck within 12 months.
Fifty-nine percent of the people surveyed said that rising gas prices have either changed their minds or strongly influenced their buying intentions. People who were thinking about getting a high-horsepower vehicle said they are now looking for something more reasonable. Those who had a gleam in their eye for a sport-utility vehicle said they have now set their sights on what presumably are more fuel-efficient cars and sedans.
The caveat is needed because all cars aren't the same, and neither are all SUVs. Depending on overall vehicle size and engine displacement, some SUVs can be more fuel-efficient than some cars. But that's off the subject. We're talking about what people actually do versus what they say.
Another Harris/KBB survey result was that 70 percent of the people interviewed said they would "consider" shopping for a gas-electric hybrid car or truck. Forty-two percent of the shoppers interviewed said they would "seriously consider a more fuel-efficient vehicle" if gasoline prices rose another 25 cents a gallon.
That was in late August. In early September, largely in response to Hurricane Katrina's ravaging of the Gulf Coast and before refining was interrupted by Hurricane Rita, gasoline prices rose considerably more than 25 cents a gallon.
What are people doing?
Here are some market snapshots: Ford Motor Co. dealers say they are having no problems selling mid-size Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles, which remain the best-selling SUVs in the country. "It is a matter of customer loyalty, what makes people feel comfortable, what makes them feel safe," said a Ford spokesman.
The summer-long "employee discount" vehicle-marketing programs, which are scheduled to end this month, have been tilted in favor of SUV and pickup truck sales. But let us assume that anyone intelligent enough to have the money to pay $30,000 for a mid-size SUV or bling-to-the-max pickup truck also has the common sense to just say no to a deal if the deal does not suit him or her economically.
In a nation of high gasoline prices, let us assume that a buyer might choose an economical subcompact car instead of a deeply discounted 15-miles-a-gallon truck.
But the problem with assumptions is that they aren't real. The reality is that people snapped up most of the deals on the SUVs and pickup trucks, boosting sales for General Motors Corp., Ford and the Chrysler Group to record levels in June and July.
Sales of economy cars, even at prices lower than those of the discounted trucks, continued to lag. Sales of such cars barely account for 5 percent of the total U.S. new-vehicle sales market, according to Automotive News Data and other industry research. Sales of SUVs and other light trucks make up 49 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States today, a trend that has been holding steady for several years.
More: Toyota Motor Corp. says it has waiting lists for its Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid sedan and its luxury Lexus 400h gas-electric hybrid SUV. But Toyota has no waiting list for its Toyota Echo subcompact economy car, which at nearly 40 miles per gallon on the highway gets substantially better mileage than the Lexus 400h and just-as-good real-world mileage as the hybrid Prius sedan -- for much less money in both cases.
But not all waiting lists are the same. The Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler Corp. has its waiting lists, too. For example, there are waiting lists for the 425-horsepower, 6.1-liter V-8 Dodge Charger SRT 8 sedan, the 340-horsepower Dodge Charger RT, and similar versions of the Chrysler 300 sedan. Chevrolet has people lining up to buy its 505-horsepower -- 505 horsepower! -- 7-liter, V-8 2006 Corvette Z06 sports coupe. Volvo executives feel certain that there is enough lust for horsepower in the U.S. market to support 15,000 annual sales of the company's first-ever V-8 engine, installed in the 2006 Volvo XC90 V-8 sport-utility vehicle. And no one at Aston-Martin or Bentley is complaining about the strain of keeping up with orders for their gas-thirsty, high-performance exotic cars.
None of this means that demand for economy cars and hybrids of one sort or another will not grow. Depending on whom you speak to in the automobile industry, predictions are that hybrids will occupy from 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. automotive market by 2015. That's up from barely a 1 percent market share today.
Also, in that regard, suggestions that the automotive industry does not care about fuel economy, or that the car companies are somehow forcing consumers to buy vehicles they really don't want, are absolute rubbish. At this very moment, almost any shopper in the United States can pick up a 30-mpg car -- if he or she wants one. Check out the various automobiles listed at www.greencars.com for proof.
The reality is that car companies follow the market. Consumers make the market. If consumers do what they say and actually start buying economy cars in large numbers, the car companies will make more of them -- sporty, fancy, whatever the market wants.
Car companies have no more vested interest in SUVs or horsepower than oil companies have an undying interest in oil. The overriding interest for both industries is profitability. If car companies can make money from selling hybrids, hydrogen or economy cars in a market that is willing to pay a good price for them, they will make and market those vehicles. In the matter of economy cars, automobile manufacturers in Europe and Japan have been making money that way for years.