Gas-guzzling SUVs for smaller SUVs, large trucks for smaller trucks, and their 28-mpg Camrys for 41-mpg Corollas.
George Bryson - Anchorage Daily News - July 2, 2006
Some Alaskans are even opting for high-mileage vehicles like the Prius.
Two years ago this summer, Fairbanks composer John Luther Adams decided to buy a Toyota Prius, the popular gas-electric hatchback sedan that manages to get about 50 miles per gallon on the highway. Except it wasn't that popular back then. At least not in Fairbanks.
When he visited the local Toyota dealer in 2004, Adams says, he was told it didn't carry Priuses. The salesman's tone suggested it shouldn't. "He said, 'Oh, you know, it's not for Alaskan winters,' " Adams recalls.
That seemed to contradict a couple of people he knew in Fairbanks who already owned gas-electric hybrids. They liked theirs - they got great gas mileage. And with the war in Iraq entering its second year just then, gas in Fairbanks wasn't getting any cheaper. Some of the local stations were charging $2 a gallon.
So with the family Mazda about to die, Adams and his wife, Cynthia, decided to order a Prius from the Toyota dealer in Anchorage, where the asking price - $21,000 - was a lot less than that of a typical SUV. Still, it was a big step.
"We waited for a while, partly because this is the first new car I've ever bought in my life," says Adams, 53, whose experimental music for orchestra has won international acclaim. "I'm an artist, and I don't have a lot of money to throw around."
But now he considers it money well thrown.
"I love this car," Adams says. "I've never been so enthusiastic about owning a car in my life. And yes, a lot of that has to do with the mileage and the near-zero emissions and that nice, warm feeling I get about driving a hybrid - especially when I go to the gas pump." Because even though regular unleaded gas in Fairbanks has since shot to $3 a gallon - half again more expensive than it was when Adams purchased his vehicle - he's now paying less for gas. So are a lot of other Alaskans.
Increasingly, dealers here say, car buyers in Anchorage are trading in their gas-guzzling SUVs for smaller SUVs, their large trucks for smaller trucks, their 28-mpg Camrys for 41-mpg Corollas - with the added advantage of paying thousands of dollars less for smaller vehicles.
And some Alaskans are even opting for high-mileage alternative vehicles, such as the gas-electric Prius (rated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency at 60 mpg in the city, 51 on the highway), the Hybrid Honda Civic (49 mpg city, 51 highway) or the diesel-fueled Volkswagen Jetta (36 mpg city, 41 highway).
To hear the car salesmen of Anchorage tell it, there's been a sea change in the way Alaskans feel about cars over the past year or two, particularly in the last six months.
"It's a different culture, a different perspective - then compared to now," says Nye Frontier Toyota sales manager Dave McDonald.
"They're real conscious now about fuel economy," adds Chuck Hoskins, general sales manager for the Morrison Auto Group, seller of Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche and Isuzu vehicles.
The proof lies in the sales.
In May, Hoskins says, Morrison sold a record 54 VWs, the dealership's most fuel-efficient brand, far surpassing the old monthly mark of 37 VWs. Twenty-six of those were high-mileage diesels, an option available on the compact Jetta and subcompact Beetle, which on diesel can get 44 miles per gallon.
In return, Hoskins says, the same customers are trying to trade in their large SUVs and pickups, only to learn that the market has devalued big rigs.
"It's pretty tough because a customer expects so much, and the dealers just can't put that much money into them," Hoskins says. "Because they just sit. The market is kind of shrinking for that type of vehicle right now."
At the multilot Continental Auto Group dealership in South Anchorage, owner Martin Martensen has observed a similar influx of customers trading in large trucks and SUVs for vehicles that get better gas mileage.
"There's no doubt about that," says Martensen, whose company sells Subarus and Hondas as well as five other brands. "They're looking at more fuel-efficient cars, whether it's a Honda, a Mazda, a Subaru or a Nissan. Any of those sedans or wagons."
It's still true that a lot of Alaskans want all-wheel-drive vehicles, he says. But now they're looking at smaller versions, like the Honda CRV, the Subaru Forester and or the Subaru Legacy station wagon.
"Our big seller is the Honda CRV, which is a small SUV and gets good gas mileage. It's in the low to mid-20s, and that's a lot better than in the low to mid-teens."
The biggest story, however, might be uptown at Nye Frontier Toyota, where the wait to buy a new Prius is a couple of months. And that's an improvement.
"There for a long time we were looking at six or seven months of a wait (for a Prius)," says sales manager McDonald.
At the same time, demand is growing for the new $12,000 subcompact Yaris, which gets 40 mpg on the highway, the now-roomier Corolla sedan (41 mpg), the new gas-electric Camry hybrid (40 mpg), the four-wheel-drive Matrix station wagon (31 mpg), the gas-electric Highlander SUV (32 mpg) and the Tacoma light pickup (27 mpg).
The fleetwide emphasis on fuel economy comes at the right time for Toyota, which appears to have anticipated better than any other automaker what's foremost on the mind of American auto buyers - especially in the Pacific Northwest, where Toyota set sales records in March, April and May.
Toyota sales in Alaska increased 50 percent in May as four dealers statewide sold a combined 223 vehicles, compared to 149 in May 2005, according to Toyota spokesman Michael Dobrin in Portland, Ore. Of those sold, Dobrin says, 125 were light trucks and 98 were passenger cars.
The Toyota model that gets the best gas mileage of all -- the Prius -- represented only a small percentage of those sales due to supply shortages, McDonald says. But the outlook for greater Prius shipments is improving.
You have to hand it to John and Cynthia Adams. When their Prius finally arrived in time for Christmas a year and a half ago, they didn't baby the car in Fairbanks.
They didn't keep it wrapped up in a warm garage. They don't have one. Instead, they drove it through the winter and parked it each evening outside their home about 15 miles from the city.
So how did that experiment go, considering the Prius relies heavily on a large battery (which automatically recharges itself whenever the car is in use, driving an electric motor that joins forces with a 1.5-liter gas engine)?
"We've had it for two winters now," Adams says. "The first was a global-warming winter (with only moderate temperatures), but this past winter we had some real Fairbanks weather at 40-something-below for a stretch. And it did great."
As with any car, his fuel mileage fell off in the winter, Adams says -- from about 49 mpg on average in summer to about 39 mpg in winter, figuring in cold starts and studded snow tires. But it never failed to start, and it never lacked for power.
"Forget the hybrid part," he says. "One of the things I like best about it is that it's quiet. It's super quiet. We've taken it on a couple of long trips. We've had it on the Denali Highway, and we drove it over Canada. It does great on the highway. It's not a small car -- it's a midsized car. And it has a lot of get-up-and-go."
Retired Anchorage Judge Karl Johnstone gets good gas mileage with a Prius too -- and he can tell you almost exactly what it is, thanks to a dashboard screen that constantly monitors the vehicle's fuel efficiency.
"I think our average now is 50.2 to 50.3 miles per gallon," he says. "I'm extremely happy. ... It's really nice to be able to pull into the gas pump and put in 6 gallons of gas - then be able to drive hundreds of miles."
But he doesn't have Prius data for the winter. When the fall chill comes, Johnstone and his wife head Outside to spend five months at their home in Prescott, Ariz. - where they switch to another high-mileage vehicle, a diesel-fueled Volkswagen Jetta.
Unlike the Prius, which has been criticized in some quarters for falling short of its official fuel economy numbers in real-life driving, the VW diesel seems to exceed them, Johnstone says. On the highway, he says, he gets almost 50 miles per gallon.
That seems to be true for all of the new diesel-fueled cars emerging from Europe, where expensive gas has long been an issue, says Hoskins, the sales manager at Morrison Auto Group.
"You'll at least reach (the mileage estimate) if not surpass it," he says.
You can surpass the mileage estimates for a Prius too, some hybrid advocates argue, once you master a driving technique known as "pulse and glide" in the 40-mph range (which last August allowed a team of hybrid enthusiasts in South Carolina to drive an unmodified Prius 1,400 miles on a single tank of gas, averaging a "world record" 109 miles per gallon.)
Some Morrison customers who choose VW diesels rather than Priuses or hybrid Honda Civics are also skeptical about how well the gas-electrics will hold up over the long run, Hoskins adds. "What do you do with the battery after so many years?"
But diesel cars have drawbacks of their own, others say. Some models fail to meet upcoming new U.S. emission standards. VW plans to address that by redesigning its fleet with a new generation of diesel engines due out with 2008 models, when a "cleaner" diesel fuel with lower sulfur content will become mandatory in U.S. gas stations.
In the meantime, state Sen. Kim Elton of Juneau and his wife, Mary Lou, are content driving not one hybrid but two: a 2005 Prius and a 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid, a small SUV that gets about 28 mpg in the winter using four-wheel drive and 32 mpg in the summer.
The purchases a year and a half ago made a big dent in the Eltons' monthly fuel bill, inasmuch as the Escape replaced an old Ford Explorer that got about 15 mpg and the Prius replaced their 10-year-old Saab.
"I figured out that we were probably saving a little over $100 a month in gas," Elton says.
But that was when regular unleaded gas in Juneau was still going for about $2.40 a gallon. With prices now hovering around the $2.90 level, he's saving even more.
And with Juneau's relatively moderate temperatures, he doesn't lose much mileage with the changing seasons. The Eltons' Prius averages about 52 to 53 mpg in the summer, he says. In winter, it still gets 49.
"It was a decision we feel very, very good about," Elton says. "We especially feel good every 10 days or so when we stop and fill up the tanks."
Here's a look at some of the vehicles mentioned in this article. Gas mileage and performance data were obtained from the U.S. Department of Energy at www.fueleconomy.gov
Costs for hybrid vehicles on regular gasoline figured at $2.87 per gallon. Diesel vehicles figured at $2.92 per gallon.
Greenhouse gas estimates are "full fuel-cycle estimates" and include the three major greenhouse gases emitted by motor vehicles: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Full fuel-cycle estimates consider all steps in the use of a fuel, from production and refining to distribution and final use.