Friday, September 30, 2005

Who knew?

Well, unfortunately not GM's chief market analyst.

USAToday: Many reduce gasoline usage.

Americans have cut their gasoline use notably, an apparent response to the high prices that pre-dated Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and shortages that followed.

Small, fuel-efficient cars were 15.7% of new vehicle sales last month, according to Power Information Network, up from their typical level of about 14%. More important, owners of every type of vehicle - even SUVs and minivans - traded for small cars more often last month than they did a year ago, according to the PIN data. PIN is a unit of J.D. Power and Associates.

"People say, 'I used to go out and eat, go out to the movies. I don't do that now. I stay home and watch DVDs or HBO.' Soccer moms tell me they're no longer using their SUVs. They're in VWs," says Bill Douglass, CEO of Douglass Distributing, based near Dallas.

He operates 14 large convenience-store gas stations and supplies brand-name gasoline to 165 others in Texas.

The drop in gasoline use was noted in the U.S. Energy Information Administration's weekly petroleum report Wednesday. It says gasoline consumption the past four weeks averaged 8.8 million barrels a day, down from 9.1 million a year ago. That's a 3.3% drop.

Adding credibility to that, EIA also reported that gasoline inventories rose 4.4 million barrels last week, rather than declining, even though energy operations in the Gulf of Mexico were not running because of leftover damage from Katrina Aug. 29 and new disruptions from Rita, which hit Saturday. In fact, 100% of Gulf oil production was down Wednesday, the U.S. Minerals Management Service reported in a daily update.

Douglass says gasoline demand in his area has dropped 10% below last year's, starting in August. It's "a huge change" that he previously thought would take years.

Factoring out the few days of panic buying after Katrina, demand for gasoline has "been down 6% to 15%, depending on the store," says Jay Ricker, president of Rickers, a chain of 33 convenience-store stations in Indiana. "When we crossed the $3 threshold, that was a defining moment, getting people to think more about their driving."

Washington Post: Smaller Cars Enjoy New Chic.

John Mathews of Universal Toyota in San Antonio has witnessed the day that auto industry executives in Detroit said would never come.

"We are seeing people who are driving $40,000 Suburbans trading them in on $15,000 Corollas," said Mathews, who manages a dealership in a state where big trucks and sport-utility vehicles rule the roads. "The last 30 days have been unlike anything I've ever seen in the automotive industry."

Nationally, Toyota Motor Corp. officials say the Corolla, one of the Japanese company's smallest and most fuel-efficient passenger cars, had 8.7 days' supply of inventory at the end of last week. In the industry, inventory of 50 to 60 days' supply is seen as adequate. Honda Motor Co. officials are struggling to keep up with demand for the Civic, of which there is nine days' supply. "Inventories are as low or lower than they've ever been for the Civic," said Sage Marie, a Honda spokesman. "They're basically being bought right off the truck."

Paul Ballew, GM's chief market analyst, said the level of consumer interest in small cars is being overplayed. He said Japanese automakers are benefiting most because of their experience in the segment, particularly in their home market.

FoxNews: High Gas Prices Changing Auto Market.

"The (large) SUV segment, I predict, will be 25 percent of what it once was in the next 24 months," said Peter DeLorenzo, publisher of the closely watched industry Web site (

"People are going to abandon (large) SUVs in droves," he added. "We are a faddish nation, from hula hoops to pet rocks and absolutely (large) SUVs were fad and fashion."

"Right now a full-size SUV that gets ... 16 miles per gallon doesn't look very good," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research.

To address that, Japan's Mitsubishi Motors Corp. (search) on Wednesday said it would offer U.S. consumers one year's worth of gasoline with its vehicles in a new incentive program.

Bloomberg: Oil, Gasoline Rebound on Concern Refineries May Be Shut Longer.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, American consumers are facing sticker shock over gasoline prices, said James Cordier, president of Liberty Trading Group in Tampa. ``The talk is truly conservation right now,'' he said. ``The radio stations here -- you call in to win gasoline. That's how bad it is.''

Bloomberg: Volkswagen U.S. Sales Soar as Oil Prices Shift Demand.

Volkswagen AG's U.S. sales of its namesake brand rose 72 percent in the first 10 days of September as record gasoline prices prompted buyers to trade in sport-utility vehicles for small cars and demand more diesel models, the brand's top U.S. executive said.

The U.S. unit is seeking more diesel engines for the new Jetta car than planned because gasoline price increases and scattered fuel shortages caused by hurricane Katrina are prompting buyers to ask for diesel cars, Len Hunt, the top U.S. executive for the Volkswagen brand, said in an interview. Diesel engines can get 40 percent better fuel economy than gasoline motors.

``There has definitely been a shift moving away from SUVs,'' said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst for Lexington, Massachusetts- based Global Insight Inc. ``People are also more motivated to learn about the new diesels now. There hasn't been a real reason before in the U.S.''

``There has been a massive interest in demand for the Jetta diesel,'' Hunt, 49, said. ``Initially we thought diesel demand might be 15 percent of the Jetta sales in the U.S. and it's more than 20 percent already and rising. It was under way before, but Katrina has accelerated it.''

Buying trends indicate that people who don't normally consider diesel are switching, Hunt said. Volkswagen was caught short of diesel Jettas with automatic transmissions because traditional diesel buyers prefer a manual gearbox, he said. Many of the new buyers are first-time diesel owners, Hunt said.

In Texas, the state with among the largest U.S. concentration of pickup truck buyers, the percentage of Jettas sold with diesel engines has more than doubled in the last several months, to about 30 percent, Hunt said.

DaimlerChrysler AG's Dieter Zetsche, who will take over as chief executive in January when Juergen Schrempp retires, has said U.S. demand for Jeep Liberty SUV and Mercedes E-Class sedan with diesels was already exceeding initial expectations before the hurricane as gasoline prices rose. Zetsche was head of Chrysler and now leads the Mercedes Car Group.

Mercedes sold 470 diesel versions of the E-Class in August, a ``significant'' increase from the 250 to 300 diesel models it normally sells, U.S. Mercedes chief Paul Halata said in an interview today. He credits the oil shock of the 1980s with helping attracting U.S. buyers to Mercedes in the first place and at one point driving diesels to 70 percent of U.S. sales.

``Diesel has to be part of the answer and this will speed it up,'' he said, adding that he also plans to speed up plans to get more diesel engines in U.S. models. He didn't provide a timetable.