It's Not the '70s, Baby

Gas prices are soaring again, so it's time to dust off the platform shoes and hit the disco. Don't worry about your job and family responsibilities. It's time to boogie. As dumb as it sounds, this is the mentality driving much of the forecasting on the impact of rising fuel prices. Baby Boomers are expected to ditch their thirsty Detroit iron for more fuel-efficient Japanese products just like they

Gas prices are soaring again, so it's time to dust off the platform shoes and hit the disco. Don't worry about your job and family responsibilities. It's time to boogie.

As dumb as it sounds, this is the mentality driving much of the forecasting on the impact of rising fuel prices. Baby Boomers are expected to ditch their thirsty Detroit iron for more fuel-efficient Japanese products — just like they did in the 1970s and early 1980s.

When sales of SUVs dipped in April, many pundits, analysts and journalists announced it was the beginning of the end. They argued that once again the Motor City is stuck with fleets of outdated gas-guzzlers, while Japanese rivals have what the public really wants: fuel-efficient hybrid cars.

Few dared to speculate the month's weakness might only be a payback for unusually strong sales earlier in the year.

And while Toyota Prius hybrid sales are up 80% through the first four months of 2004 over last year (to 13,602 units), few mention sales of the Honda Insight hybrid — the most fuel-efficient car in America — are down 52%. Honda sold 294 Insights through April. Those are numbers only Lamborghini could love.

Never mind the current run-up in fuel prices is costing the average motorist about $10 extra per week (equivalent to about two coffees at Starbucks).

In fact, sales of the largest sport utilities rebounded in May and, according to WardsAuto.com, consumers are continuing to shift away from cars and towards SUVs.

Trucks, including fullsize pickups and SUVs, propelled General Motors Corp. in May to its best monthly sales results of the year. GM pickup sales increased 5% and fullsize SUVs 8.5% for the month.

What everyone seems to have forgotten is that demographics drove the big consumer shifts in the 1970s more than fuel prices.

Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are 78 million strong in the U.S., and are the most influential consumer group of the 20th century. We gravitated to products made by Toyota, Honda and Datsun (now Nissan), among others, not only because they got better fuel economy, but because they were more appealing and offered far better quality than Detroit.

The Japanese products were sporty, more space-efficient and low-cost — ideal for our needs in the 1970s. We were young, didn't have much money and were eager to try new brands.

Now Boomers are middle-aged and entering our prime earning years. Fuel costs, no matter what the price and how loud the whining, are a far smaller portion of the household budget of a typical vehicle buyer now than 30 years ago.

Today's $2-plus prices can't compare with 1981's $1.42, which equals $3 per gallon in today's dollars.

Meanwhile, Boomers lives have changed. We have children and grandchildren to cart to soccer practice and college. We are hooked on the benefits of 4-wheel drive, we have stuff to tow, and our butts have gotten bigger.

Few of us, no matter how many anecdotes you read about or see on TV, are going to sacrifice the utility, room and safety of an SUV just to save a lousy $10 or $20 per week.

Boomers will give up our SUVs all right, not at $2.50 a gallon or $3 per gallon, but when you pry the steering wheels out of our cold, dead, hands.

Drew Winter is editor of Wards AutoWorld.

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