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Small Cars Make a Comeback Amid High Gas Prices

July 15, 2008 at 6:50 PM EST
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ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour Essayist: It’s a surprising turn, nowhere more in evidence than here on the roads and in the parking lots around my neighborhood in West Los Angeles. The big automotive brutes are gone, or certainly going, and the smaller guys, the gas-smart Priuses and the like, are the hot and trendy wheels du jour.

In lots like this outside of my local Whole Foods, it used to be impossible to squeeze by or in between the Escalades and Navigators. They were America, writ large and thirsty, 14-miles-per-gallon gas-guzzlers driven alike by cool dudes with chin stubble and Pilates-light suburban moms with the soy latte and the cup-holder.

Now the price of gas is sky-high, with every anticipation, given the global hunger for oil, that it will go even higher. And in response, consumers are going smaller and smaller. So is Detroit.

Ford has already slashed its SUV and pickup productions, and now General Motors, the country’s leading automaker, is following suit, even considering selling its Hummer brand, those once-coveted symbols of swagger and success.

Our action-hero governor, for example, owned a fleet of them, but you sure don’t see him driving them anymore.

Now it’s all downsize, all the time. And the question is: Will it last this time? Is this a genuine paradigm shift?

After all, we’ve been here before back in 1973, when OPEC drastically cut its oil exports and the price of gas shot up.

GASOLINE CUSTOMER: I’ve been here since 4:30 this morning. It’s ridiculous waiting on line here.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: The lines at the pumps were long, and there was a big push toward energy independence, a lot of talk about solar power and wind power and whatnot. We know where that went.

Oil exports went back up, the price of gas back down. The lines disappeared, and our vehicles got bigger and bigger and bigger. Even the horror of September 11th didn’t get us really talking about energy independence from the oil-rich countries that are not exactly friendly.

So it is easy to be cynical or cautious or some such thing. And yet there are signs that the shift is genuine and that there will be no going back. After all, given the hunger for oil, there is ultimately just not going to be enough.

There’s also taking widespread hold a sense of the precariousness of the planet and how we must tread more lightly on it, treat it with more respect, not put so much pollution into the skies.

Both presidential candidates, for example, talk about energy independence and global warming. These are not partisan issues anymore. We are, it would seem, at the eco-tipping point.

To see these lots now and see all these unsold giants is to feel already as if you are wandering in a kind of automotive theme park, a museum almost, a snapshot of entitled times past that will not come again, not in the same way, anyway. The SUV is about to become a thing of the past, a swaggery relic of days gone by.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.