Japan’s woes add to shortage of fuel-efficient vehicles


CLARKONOMICS: It should come as no surprise that the recent run-up in fuel prices has created a shortage of fuel-efficient vehicles on dealer lots. But there’s another factor that’s turning the shortage from mild to severe — and that’s what’s going on in Japan.

Many fuel-efficient cars are of Japanese origin. Dealers are reporting huge inquiries for gas sippers at a time when they couldn’t find customers for fuel-efficient cars just a few months ago. Shortages of hyper-efficient vehicles like the Toyota Prius are among the more extreme examples of the drought.

At this moment, it’s hard to tell when production of parts and vehicles will be fully back up to speed in Japan. Most of the car-manufacturing plants over there came through the earthquake just fine, but the rolling blackouts throughout the country make getting power to those factories very dicey. The manufacturers can’t get back to any semblance of normal. That will have ripple effects for us buying cars over here.

So this is a time when buying a fuel-efficient vehicle is not a deal. I recall back in summer 2008 when the price of a barrel of oil topped $147 and we were paying $4.11 at the gas pump as a national average. People were paying up to $10,000 over sticker to get hybrids at that time. Yet when gas prices went back down, those owners who decided they didn’t like their efficient mini-mobiles just dumped them.

In a reverse situation, big trucks and SUVs were selling well again in America just a few months ago. But right now, with the U.S. average for a gallon of gas sitting north of $3.50, the dealers are getting stuck with them. So if a large truck or SUV fits your lifestyle, you might want to zig when others zag. SUVs and large vehicles — particularly used ones — are the real sweet spot right now if that’s where your interest lies.

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