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On the Charts: People Love Their Gas Guzzlers, But $4 Gas Leads to Divorce

Sure, we all know instinctively that American interest in compact and hybrid cars closely follows the ups and downs of gas prices. It's just as clear that many hearts and minds are staying with SUVs and pickups, even as shoppers are forced by economics to slip into something smaller. Even moderate dips in fuel prices bring them back "home" to big vehicles.

But it's one thing to know how that dynamic works and another entirely to see it right in front of you. So check out these charts from Cars.com that track online car searches as gas prices rose and fell. The tipping point seems to be $4 a gallon -- that's when the liabilities of larger vehicles outweigh their virtues for many Americans,

Here's the compact car chart:

Note how a $4.09 retail average for a gallon of gas in July of 2008 caused a corresponding spike in people looking for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. That month, compacts and hybrids became 26.4 percent of all searches, up 15.4 percent in February. Meanwhile, SUV searches dropped from 36.2 percent to 27.4 percent. Compact searches went flat when gas fell back to $3 and below, but you can see searches trending up again with rising gas prices late last year.

Now look at the SUV search chart:

You'd expect to see a dip in the summer of 2008, and it's certainly there, with cars outselling light trucks for the first time in eight years. But the SUV searches snap right back up after the worst of it is over. LeaseTrader.com looked at 500 drivers who traded in SUVs in 2008, and 58 percent of them are now back in an SUV.

By October of last year, trucks were dominant again. The Americans who'd rushed out and bought a Toyota Corolla in 2008 were spending idle time searching for another SUV online. Maybe they kept the Corolla, but they also needed (maybe we should say "wanted"; it's more heart than head) four-wheel drive for winter driveways and something heavy to tow that boat.

Here's the hybrid chart, the most telling one of all:

Look at that 2008 search spike! It trended up again with fuel price hikes in the summer of 2009, and it's on its way up again at the end of the chart. In February, hybrids were up 30 percent compared to the same month in 2010, while sales of the market-dominating Prius were up 70 percent.

This says to me that the fuel-saving value of greener cars is firmly embedded in the American consciousness. But people haven't made an emotional commitment to them, and they're still somewhat confused about how they work. Some 40 percent of U.S. drivers are under the mistaken impression that plug-in hybrids don't have tailpipe emissions, and 51 percent are convinced that battery cars take 15 minutes or less to recharge, according to a Synovate poll. The vehicle they really want is an F-350 pickup that gets 60 mpg and a green score higher than the Prius. They'd also settle for an electric version with full power and 300 miles of range at no added cost.

"We just may be witnessing the start of another shift in car shopping like we did in 2008," says Cars.com. Definitely, but unless the fuel prices stay high (a distinct possibility given rising demand and instability in the Middle East), the pendulum is going to swing back once again.

Related:

Charts: Cars.com; gas-price image via Flickr user A Siegel, CC 2.0
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