American Drivers Regain Appetite for Gas Guzzlers

Source: By MATT RICHTEL, New York Times • Posted: Monday, June 27, 2016

Angelo Di Maria, of the Bronx, had trouble finding a buyer for the lease on a Toyota Prius driven by his father-in-law, right, whose company had given him a Ford pickup. Edwin J. Torres for The New York Times 

The single most effective action that most Americans can take to help reduce the dangerous emissions that cause climate change? Buy a more fuel-efficient car.

But consumers are heading in the opposite direction. They have rekindled their love of bigger cars, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, favoring them over small cars, hybrids and electric vehicles, which are considered crucial to helping slow global warming.

So far this year, nearly 75 percent of the people who have traded in a hybrid or electric car to a dealer have replaced it with an all-gas car, an 18 percent jump from 2015, according to, a car shopping and research site.

In 2008, President Obama set a goal of a million electric cars on the road by 2015 in the United States, but the total is now around 442,000, including plug-in hybrids. This year, electric and hybrid sales have dropped to 2.4 percent of new-car purchases.

The Tesla Model 3, an electric car due out late next year. Many climate experts hope it changes Americans’ minds on electric cars. Justin Pritchard/Associated Press 

Falling gas prices have made big, heavy cars fashionable again, said Michael Sivak, the director of sustainable worldwide transportation at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. In fact, demand for trucks, S.U.V.s and vans has rebounded to historic levels after they dropped sharply in 2008, when gas was $4 a gallon.

“People have very short memories about the price of gasoline,” Dr. Sivak said.

That spells trouble for the environment. So-called light-duty vehicles, including S.U.V.s and pickups as well as cars, account for 16.2 percent of all greenhouse emissions produced in the United States, Dr. Sivak’s research shows, making them the biggest source of emissions that individuals control.

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Reducing tailpipe emissions “is perhaps the most important thing Americans can do,” said Andrew Jones, a co-director of Climate Interactive, a think tank. “We’re doing the opposite.”

The changing consumer patterns are in plain view at, a marketplace for people who want to get out of a car lease by transferring it to someone else. Dozens of hybrids and electric vehicles are available, in some cases languishing without bites from buyers.

“Nobody is interested,” said Angelo Di Maria, who lives in the Bronx. Several weeks ago, he listed his father-in-law’s 2013 Toyota Prius. To spur interest, he added a $1,500 cash incentive, which sharply cut the monthly lease payment to $283 from $391. Still no buyer.

Mr. Di Maria said that his father-in-law, who works in construction, loved the Prius, but that his company had given him a Ford F-150 pickup.

“Who doesn’t want to drive around in a big tank?” Mr. Di Maria said. “When people start to think gas is more affordable, do they really want to pay the premium on the hybrid?”

Buyers of electric cars enjoy huge discounts, however, including federal and state rebates, and the opportunity to bypass gas stations altogether.

John Meyer, an entrepreneur in New York, preordered a Tesla Model 3 while on a flight, worried that he would miss the chance. Andrew Renneisen for The New York Times 

For that reason, Felix Sui, who works in technology in San Diego, loved his BMW electric car. But now that he and his wife are starting a family, he sold the lease on it so he could buy a Volvo S.U.V. “The XC90,” he clarified. “The big one.”

A preference for big cars is not going to help the country reach the goals outlined in the Paris climate accord, reached in December. To help reach those goals, average fuel economy would need to soar to at least 100 miles per gallon — most likely achievable only through widespread adoption of electric and other zero-emission cars, according to Ben Haley, a co-founder of Evolved Energy Research, a consulting firm.

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President Obama has pushed for stronger federal fuel-economy rules that call for cars to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025; the current average is 25.4 miles per gallon.

Though electric cars may be somewhat out of favor for now, that may change. Many are hoping that the Tesla could transform Americans’ views on electric cars, much the way the iPhone did with mobile technology.

Tesla still carries asterisks — it is losing money, and it is not clear if the company can produce what it has promised — but it can point to 370,000 votes of confidence. That is how many people have put down $1,000 to reserve one of Tesla’s new Model 3 cars, a significantly lower-cost version of its luxury models; they won’t even be out until late next year.

There are hopes, too, for the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, which boasts a range of 200 miles, nearly matching the projected range of the Tesla Model 3. Those would more than double the range of many cars on the market, helping alleviate the “range anxiety” that many consumers feel.

When Tesla first let people sign up online in March, and reservations surged to 325,000 within a week, Dr. John Sterman, a climate expert at M.I.T., was heartened by the prospect of broader interest in low-emission cars.

“All my friends and colleagues were sending me links to the media reports,” he said. “ I thought, this is great news.”

Years from now, he added, “we will look at this as a watershed moment.”

Others who worry about climate change can sound like boosters for the new car.

“Tesla is notorious for performance. It can outperform the hottest, most conventional car,” said Albert Ayala, deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board, a publicagency that governs air quality.

When he gives speeches and is asked how the electric-car market can improve, he points to Tesla and says, “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Seconds after preorders for the new Model 3 became available, John Meyer, 21, an entrepreneur in New York, made his reservation. At the time, he was on a flight from Newark to Los Angeles, and worried that he would miss out if the plane’s Wi-Fi went down.

He called the car a “game changer” because it has everything he wants — it is cool, beautiful and powerful, he said, as well as being environmentally friendly.

“I could’ve bought a Prius before,” he said. “And I would have if it looked like an Audi.”