February 20, 2015

A survey done by a consumer watchdog found that, despite the drop, car owners expect that the cost of gasoline will continue to increase, making fuel efficiency a top priority for their next vehicle purchase.

The latest national survey on consumer attitudes toward energy commissioned by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) reveals that consumers expect the national gasoline price average to rise by almost 50 percent in the next two years – from about $2.141 to $3.20 – and by over 80 percent in the next five years – to $3.90. In spite of the current low gas prices, the survey also reveals that consumers have incorporated this expectation into their next vehicle purchase.

More than four-fifths (86 percent) say that gas mileage will be "important" in their next purchase, while over half (57 percent) say it will be "very important" in determining what vehicle to purchase.

"There's a good reason why today's car buyers still believe fuel efficiency is important—they understand that gas prices always go back up," said Jack Gillis, Director of Public Affairs and author of The Car Book.

A new CFA analysis of the last dip and rise in gas prices (2009-2014) confirms why consumers still want higher mileage vehicles in the face of low gas prices. In January 2009, the monthly average price of gas was $1.84. Five years later – the typical term of a new car loan– the monthly average gas price rose to $3.36. In January 2009, consumers who were lulled into purchasing lower mileage vehicles due to low gas prices ended up spending thousands more than the fuel-efficient buyers during the time they owned the vehicle.

For example, buying a 15 mpg vehicle in January 2009 would have resulted in a monthly gas expenditure of $153 for that January. Five years later, that monthly average expenditure would skyrocket to $268. During the first five years of ownership, these buyers would spend over $6,400 more on gas than if they had purchased a 25 mpg vehicle. And, there were plenty of vehicle choices within the same vehicle category getting between 15 and 25 mpg in 2009, so buying a higher mileage vehicle would not have required moving to another class of vehicle.

"Buying an inefficient vehicle during periods of low gas prices condemns the consumer to wider swings in monthly costs, much higher monthly peaks, and a whopping overall increase in lifetime gas costs," said Dr. Mark Cooper, CFA's Director of Research.

CFA's new national survey asked consumers to identify the gas mileage they want in their next vehicle purchase compared to the gas mileage of their current vehicle. On average, respondents reported that they expected the gas mileage of their next vehicle to be 30 mpg compared to the 25 mpg rating of their current vehicle. "Consumers are smart and have long memories, so it's no surprise that they still want more fuel efficiency even though today's gas prices may be low," said Gillis.

A copy of the full report can be found here.

Editor's Note: North Carolina Consumers Council is a member of CFA