As news spreads that average fuel prices in the United States may reach $4.00 per gallon by Memorial Day, if not sooner, the attention of car buyers will once again turn to high-efficiency cars. But how much money you can save by switching to a 40 mpg subcompact hatchback depends as much on what you’re presently driving as it does on the rising price at the pump.

Based on the EPA’s average fuel economy ratings, a four-wheel drive Chevrolet Suburban registers 17 mpg. A four-cylinder all-wheel drive Kia Sorento? 23 mpg, a six mpg difference. So far, the math isn’t difficult. Now let’s consider a car owner, someone who drives a 26-mpg four-cylinder Ford Fusion. In Ford’s own showroom, the Focus, in SFE trim, rings in at 33 mpg on the EPA’s scale, a pleasing seven mpg difference.

Is it time for a change? Smaller cars to save in the long run.

Now, backtrack for a minute. Assume, for the moment, that we all drive 250 miles each week. Throw in an extra 2000 miles for an old-fashioned cross-country family vacation, and the family vehicle is responsible for traveling 15,000 miles each year. Consider the owner of a midsize sedan like the Fusion, a veritable dinosaur were fuel prices to ever reach $5.50/gallon, and the $44 it incurs in weekly fuel costs. Surely a switch to the smaller, snugger, more modest Focus would have a huge impact on vehicle-related expenses. Indeed, the Focus’s weekly fuel costs of $35 represent a $9 savings, more accurately labelled as an $18 drop per paycheck. Not bad.

Is it time to switch from your big SUV to a smaller car?

Meanwhile, the owner of the guzzling Chevrolet Suburban realizes it is perhaps time for a change. After all, fuel costs have risen to $4.00/gallon, and he’s using 17 of those gallons each week – that’s $68. The thought of escaping into a midsize sedan, let alone a small hatchback, is detestable. But downsizing to another SUV like the roomy and capable Kia Sorento, though not the stuff efficiency dreams are made of, will save $18 each week; $32 per paycheck.

Yes, the five mpg drop is worth more than the six mpg decrease. And it’s not fuzzy math. Switching from the Suburban to the Sorento means the mpg rating climbs by 35%. The Fusion to Focus change nets only a 27% benefit.

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Is this supposed to mean new vehicle buyers need only downsize by small margins to make large gains in their budgets? Not at all. To begin with, fuel costs are only one part of a family’s vehicle-related expenses. The monthly payment will have at least as great an impact. More importantly, one way the Suburban owner could really save on gas would be to make the change to the Focus SFE, just as the Fusion owner was considering.

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Will switching to a smaller car really make a difference at the gas station?

In truth, the real point is to understand that the sudden obsession with small cars that arises each time fuel costs spike is an unreasonable fascination

There are people who will still need to tow boats, carry seven people, or lug loads of lumber. A Ford Focus SFE will not complete those tasks, nor will a Chevrolet Cruze Eco, the new Hyundai Elantra Coupe, the Scion iQ, or a Toyota Camry Hybrid. Suggesting that we all consider major lifestyle changes just because gasoline costs more than it did last year is akin to implying families of five must switch from large pizzas to small because flour prices are rising. We still have to eat.

And who’s to say vehicle choices must be altered anyway? One surefire way to save on fuel is not to use any gas at all, a feat achieved by not leaving the driveway, or having the family vehicle shipped to its long-distance destination via an auto transporter. Maybe 250 miles per week can be adjusted downward, even slightly. Perhaps the 2000-mile family vacation can be tinkered with – there are plenty of nice spots to see in state.

Even with gas prices of $4.00/gallon, when the Chevrolet Suburban owner is determined to drive 12,500 miles per year instead of 15,000, weekly fuel costs fall to from $68 to $57. Who needs a Prius now?

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