Fuel prices are hitting a three-year high just as many automakers continue to shift their production lineups further in favor of crossovers and truck-based vehicles.
Ford's recent announcement that it would only make two conventional passenger car models for the U.S. market has left some wondering if it will hurt The Blue Oval if fuel prices spike or if Obama-era fuel economy regulations stay in place.
Demand for sport-utility vehicles is expected to only grow. Auto industry forecaster LMC Automotive estimates SUVs, including crossovers, will be about 50 percent of all vehicle sales by 2022. Back in 2008, when gas prices were at a record high around $4.00 per gallon, sales were half that.
But there are a few things to keep in mind with respect to this shift.
First, many of the vehicles automakers are betting on, such as crossovers and subcompact SUVs, are often based on lightweight car platforms, rather than the traditional truck platforms.
In some sense, they are a new kind of passenger car that departs from the "3-box" format of sedan, which segments a car into an engine, a cabin, and a trunk.
"What Ford is really talking about modernizing the definition of the car," she said. "All Ford is doing is taking that car platform and putting different shapes on them."
These vehicles have partially, but not completely, narrowed the gap in fuel economy with their sedan counterparts.
For example, the Ford EcoSport subcompact SUV and the subcompact Fiesta sedan both get an EPA-rated 27 miles per gallon in the city, but on the highway the EcoSport only gets 29 miles per gallon to the Fiesta's 35 mpg.
Of course, there has also been a remarkable shift of interest toward pickups and large SUVs, helped in no small part by gas prices.
The average fuel economy for full-size pickup trucks in 2008 was 15.5 miles per gallon, and the cost of regular fuel for a full year for this segment at that time was $2,808. In 2018, full-size pickup fuel economy climbed to 18.2 mpg, but the full year cost of fuel for the segment is only expected to be $1,936 — a nearly $1,000 difference.
That said automakers have poured effort into designing more efficient vehicles to weather spikes in gas prices and stricter emissions controls. And they have made some impressive strides in building less fuel-hungry engines, lighter vehicles, and entirely new power trains. Those innovations are seeping into the larger vehicle segments.
Full-size trucks, for example, can now be found equipped with 6-cylinder engines that perform as well as the 8-cylinder engines that used to be standard on those vehicles, and get significantly better gas mileage.