Commentary

Why is a gas pump like your bathroom scale?

The numbers on each are invariably too high, and we deny all knowledge of how they got that way.

Blessed with a smorgasbord of vehicle segments, brands and models, we routinely make the unhealthy choices. Like failed dieters, we cave in to our cravings.

But instead of carbs, we hunger for horsepower. And whenever possible, we super-size.

Consider engines. Like chocolate-dipped strawberries on a buffet table, we always reach for the biggest one within our grasp.

The risks associated with French-fry consumption are a bigger secret than the upward trajectory of gas prices. But for passenger cars built in the U.S., installation rates of fuel-efficient 4-cyl. engines are trending downward – from 49.1% in model-year ’03 to 48.5% in model-year ’06, according to Ward’s data.

Meanwhile, consumers are enjoying a second helping of V-8s. Just over 8% of domestically built cars were equipped with the thirsty mills during model-year ’03, compared with 10.2% last year.

For all our hand-wringing over fuel economy, we continue to revert to our muscle-car roots.

I remember speaking with ArvinMeritor executive Phil Martens when he was Ford’s product guru. Scrambling to launch the auto maker’s first hybrid vehicle, he lamented that consumers remained fixated on “the biggest possible number” when perusing the industry’s menu of engine offerings.

Recently, I told an acquaintance that hybrids perform as advertised if driven conservatively.

“I can’t do that – I go 90-95 all the time,” he said, looking very snappy in his Homeland Security uniform.

It’s all about our reluctance to make trade-offs, according to a study by Consumer Reports.

Nearly 70% of survey respondents said their next vehicle would be more fuel-efficient than the ones they now own. But a bare majority – 52% – said they would be willing to sacrifice vehicle size or capability.

Eagerness to save gas waned to 48% if performance were compromised. Fewer still, 44%, could go without interior amenities.

In a testament to their business acumen, auto makers have identified this phenomenon and use it to their advantage. Internally, Ford seeks to boost sales by tapping into “the occasional imperative” – the propensity of consumers to buy pickups even though they only need such utility once or twice a year.

Chrysler calls these customers “air haulers.”

Industry critics claim this proves auto makers are manipulating the market. But they’re putting dessert before the entree.

Auto makers respond to the market. And the market is eschewing fruit compote for mocha truffle cheesecake.

To affect change, activists should concentrate on modifying consumer behavior. Mothers Against Drunk Driving didn’t transform our society’s mores by bludgeoning the makers of Jack Daniel’s. They shamed us into taking personal responsibility for our actions.

What we really need is a pickup truck that seats eight, runs on water and does the quarter mile in 12 seconds. But until the auto industry figures out how to build it, we need to quit whining – or push ourselves away from the table.

emayne@wardsauto.com