Summer Gas-Price Outlook Fuels Car Nostalgia

Alas, low-price autos with great gas mileage can be seen only in the rear-view mirror.

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With the first weekend of summer driving season approaching and gasoline closing in on $4 per gallon, Washington did the two paltry things it could do quickly. The administration stopped stockpiling emergency supplies of oil, after an overwhelming rebuke of that policy by Congress. And President Bush went hat in hand to the Saudis, who after initial balking, agreed to a modest production increase in a few weeks. The price of oil has wavered little in response.

Far from making progress on the nation's energy woes, there is evidence that we've actually regressed. No one summed this up for me better than a recent commenter to this blog who noted that he bought a Geo Metro that got 50 miles per gallon in 1992 for less than $10,000. No car is on U.S. highways today with that kind of mileage except the expensive hybrids (and then, only when you're driving slowly and in electric mode.)

Some checking revealed that a kind of cult had formed around the high-mileage Metro, and a New York man dedicates a website to his experiment of cutting his Metro in half to achieve 75 mpg fuel economy.

But right out of the showroom, these were high-achieving cars. The government's fuel economy website shows the Suzuki-engineered Chevy Geo Metro got 46 mpg (combined city and highway driving) when it debuted in 1989. But the latest model of the Chevrolet Aveo, seen as the successor car, now gets 26 mpg. What's going wrong?

Even if the automakers still don't value high gas mileage, car buyers certainly do. It's now been widely reported that the resale value of used Geo Metros and Ford Festivas has soared from about $1,000 a few months ago to $6,000 today.

The blog Left Lane News worries about the safety implications of a return to "econoboxes." But here's where the rubber truly meets the road (so to speak) for the automakers, because folks like energy guru Amory Lovins contend that the ultralight carbon materials of today could produce cars that are light, safe, and with great fuel economy.

Automakers say that will cost too much, and so we're stuck in this energy quagmire. Gas prices now top $4 a gallon in Chicago and on Long Island. And a new Rand McNally survey says two thirds of Americans who would have taken road trips this summer are either curtailing their plans or canceling altogether.