Thanksgiving Travelers: Leave Your Gas Guzzler Home

Last Updated Nov 24, 2010 3:12 PM EST

If our cars got 60 miles per gallon instead of the current average of 26.4 mpg, the savings at the pump over the Thanksgiving travel weekend would amount to $234 million, according to Environment America, whose Marian Baksh told me, "Americans should be focused on cleaning their plates, not clearing out their wallets." It's a timely message, but I'm not sure it will get people out of the huge SUVs and pickup trucks they love -- the keys are coming out of their stiff, dead fingers.

Nineteen million American families are expected to take to the roads this weekend, AAA says, and the 42.2 million people traveling is an 11 percent increase from last year. A traffic mess is predicted, as this video from ABC News makes clear:
But big holiday fuel bills, painful at the time, could be forgotten by the time people are in showrooms. The fact is, car buying is usually done with the heart, not the head. I have people regularly asking me for advice on their next purchase, and they're not happy unless I confirm the choice they've already made.

I always make the fuel economy argument -- think hard about how you actually use your car most of the time, and buy the smallest, most fuel-efficient vehicle that fits that profile -- but I can tell it's not getting through. Although people increasingly list fuel economy as an important consideration in buying their next car, it's not the part of the equation that hits them where they live. This is unscientific, but there seems to be a magic trigger price of $4 for a gallon of gas -- at $4, people are willing to abandon the gas guzzlers, but at $3 many accept their fate and stay with the big cars.

Environment America's report is called, wait for it, "Gobbling Less Gas for Thanksgiving." It estimates that if we were driving 60 mpg cars some 80 million gallons of fuel would be saved. Baksh told me, "People definitely are thinking about saving fuel over the holidays, but they also have large families, and we need to make it easier for people by enforcing the standards that allow American ingenuity to take hold and give us the vehicles of the future."

What she means is that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation are currently considering fuel economy standards for 2017 to 2025 cars, and one of the proposals on the table calls for 60 mpg at the end of that period. But carmakers and, especially, dealers, are concerned about such goals leading to higher-priced cars (standards are an issue for truckers, too). That's a legitimate issue, because hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric cars will definitely cost more. Toyota said the plug-in Prius will probably retail around $36,000 (in Japan, there's no U.S. price for the 2012 debut). The coming electrics start around $32,000, and the Chevrolet Volt is $41,000.

But Alex Wall of Environment America, author of the report, cited an October Obama administration report that concludes that 60 mpg cars will be both achievable and cost effective. "The EPA analysis shows that for consumers the payback for 60-mpg cars will be three to four years," he told me. "The fuel savings are tremendous, so there's a quick economic return and huge environmental benefits." He added that the Volt (and all EVs) come with a $7,500 federal income tax credit.

But aside from that, conventional cars with low prices and high mpg offer an attractive way to go. I walked the floor of the Los Angeles Auto Show with Jim Kliesch, a senior analyst and engineer in the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and he lauded the new Hyundai Elantra for reaching 40 mpg in a family car that costs less than $15,000. "Five years ago, if you'd have said a non-hybrid car could get 40 mpg on the highway, people would have said it wasn't achievable," Kliesch said.

Hyundai has a goal of 50 mpg fleet-wide by 2025, which is entirely laudable. Also a very credible conventional is the Chevrolet Cruze Eco (just under $19,000), which with a clever combination of weight savings and aerodynamics manages 42 mpg. I'm really interested to see if these cars will be hits, and helping to lower fuel bills by the time Thanksgiving 2011 rolls around.

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Photo: Hyundai