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Friday, February 25, 2011

Alternative-fuelers’ day is coming -- but not for a while

Again this year, auto show visitors are fascinated by electric cars, hybrids and all manner of alternative-fuel vehicles.

They check fit and finish. They climb inside and look closely at design, appointments, even carpets. They question salesmen about price, equipment, range and delivery time.

One thing most of the visitors don’t do: They don’t buy those vehicles.

Last year, Americans bought an estimated 275,000 alternative-fuelers, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s about 2.4 percent of the 11.6 million new vehicles sold in the United States in 2010. Not exactly a tidal wave of demand. And more than half (140,928) of those sales were Toyota Prius units.

But don’t write off the hybrids and others in that category. Their day is coming; it just hasn’t arrived yet. And it won’t arrive tomorrow or the next day. Price is a major obstacle; $41,000 for a Chevrolet Volt? You’ve got to be kidding.

And driving range is just as great a hurdle for the pure electrics. Would-be owners are afraid of being stranded out in the boondocks, far from an electrical outlet, or even on an expressway on the way home from work.

Manufacturers speak cautiously of a 100-mile range. Sure, on a flat, straight road with no air conditioning, no headlights, no radio or other energy-draining gadget. With air, headlights, etc., the range is likely to be closer to 60 miles, maybe less. And can you imagine being stuck in a traffic jam on a summer day with no air conditioning?

Someday, we may all be driving vehicles that don’t gulp imported oil, but don’t set your alarm or mark your calendar. I figure that day is at least a generation away. Until then, Americans will stick to their internal combustion engines.

Trucks are back again

U.S. sales of light vehicles are rising, and the reason is spelled t-r-u-c-k-s. Trucks.

Truck sales were unbelievably high in the1990s and the early years of this century. They reached their apex in 2004 with 9.2 million. That’s right; more than 9 million trucks were sold in a single year!

Trucks outsold cars from 2002 through 2007.

Then came the summer of 2008 and $4-a-gallon gasoline, and there went the truck boom.

And now trucks are roaring again. Not as loudly as before, but loud enough. They outsold cars in October, November and December and again in January.

Let’s look at some numbers. In January, sales of small cars were up 14 percent over last year. Mid-range cars (the industry’s best-selling segment) rose just 5 percent, and the near-luxury, luxury and highest-priced cars climbed 10 percent.

Small change compared with truck gains. SUV sales advanced 21 percent in January; pickups, 24 percent and crossovers, 30 percent. The big surprise was the minivan segment, which reported a sales increase of 59 percent for the month. Have soccer moms had a change of heart?

But as truck sales rise, so do gasoline prices. And now Middle East tensions are pushing prices up further. The average nationwide price for a gallon of regular today is $3.25, up from $3.15 last week and from $2.70 a year ago, according to gasoline price tracker

In the last truck boom, the Detroit 3 virtually ignored cars and turned all their efforts toward trucks. Dealers had little or nothing to show shoppers when cars came back in style.

Forewarned is forearmed.

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