Arizona gasoline prices continue to climb, moving up an average of 16 cents the past two weeks. That's 50 cents higher per gallon than this time last year, according to report released Thursday by AAA Arizona. The state's average price for self-serve regular unleaded gasoline rose to $1.633, up from $1.142 last year, AAA said.
Locally, the biggest increases were found in Scottsdale where the average price shot up nearly 20 cents to $1.66 per gallon. Average gas prices followed a similar trend in Phoenix, the East and West Valley where prices climbed more than 19 cents to $1.60 and $1.58, respectively.
In some places, including California, gas shot up to more than $2 a gallon due to fewer and more expensive supplies of crude oil and the fear of war with Iraq, analysts say. The price of oil is nearing levels not seen in more than a decade. Yet the spike has yet to cut into the sales of big trucks and sport utility vehicles, car dealers say.
“We don't have any numbers or any indication that anything has changed so far,” said Bobbie Sparrow, Arizona Automobile Dealers Association executive director. “It's too early for people to make different choices right now in their vehicles. I'm sure if it's sustained for any length of time, we will see a trend."
David Koszarek, new car manager at Earnhardt's Gilbert Dodge, said his customers aren't thinking twice about purchasing big vehicles.
“We have seen no concern on that at all yet because gas prices have spiked so many times in the past,” he said. “If you see them sitting up there for a couple of months, then maybe we'll see some concern. A lot of people feel it's just the oil companies taking advantage of the buying public with the threat of war. Once that threat either subsides or something happens, then maybe they'll decide which way they're really going to go.”
While automakers have increased the overall efficiency of the vehicles they sell, Americans continue to purchase larger, less fuel-efficient cars, trucks and SUVs, said AAA, which has 43 million members in the United States and Canada. Average fuel efficiency of new vehicles has remained almost unchanged in the last 10 years — about 20 miles per gallon. Motorists drove 11,725 miles in 2000, the latest numbers available, compared with 10,277 in 1990, AAA said.
Per-vehicle gasoline use also climbed from 506 gallons per year in 1990 to 603 gallons in 1999, the motor club said. “Fifty-five percent of sales are now considered in the large vehicle category and it's growing,” said Jim Prueter, AAA Arizona vice president. Trends show SUVs are getting better gas mileage because many are built on car chassis, said Prueter, who writes auto reviews.
In some cases, even large SUVs get as good or better mileage than vans and some large luxury passenger cars, he said.
“People feel more safe in those large vehicles and we respect the right (that) people can pretty much drive what they want,” Prueter said. “We really focus on how to drive a vehicle more efficiently and how to keep it in shape.”
Even if gas reaches $2 for a period of time, Prueter predicted it will have little effect on the sales of gas guzzlers.
“Americans have love affairs with their vehicles,” he said. “It's an extension of their personality. What you drive tells an awful lot about who you are," he said. That attitude is unlikely to change as long as gas is available, he said.
The average retail price of regular unleaded has risen 56 cents since the beginning of the year to $1.67 a gallon, nearly 12 cents more than two weeks ago. Meanwhile, wholesale gas prices have increased only 14 cents over the same period of time, causing some to say the industry is price gouging.
Earlier in the week, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate for possible price gouging.
Some analysts say prices could increase even more, especially between April 15 and May 31 because imports lost after Venezuela’s oil workers went on strike in December won't be adequately replaced during a time when weather heats up and demand rises.
According to AAA, the highest pump prices in the nation can be found in California: $1.91, Nevada $1.77, New York: $1.76, and Oregon and Wisconsin: $1.75 per gallon. The states with the least expensive average fuel price are Georgia: $1.53, Oklahoma: $1.55 and New Jersey: $1.55 and Missouri and Virginia: $1.58 per gallon.