Soaring gasoline prices have become a rite of summer in the 21st century.
With predictions of an imminent return to $4 a gallon gas in much of the nation, will consumers in the market for a new vehicle again take a look at hybrids and all-electric plug-ins?
Manufacturers sure hope so. In fact, nearly a dozen automakers are banking on it.
Analysts predict pump prices for gasoline could jump by as much as 60 cents per gallon by Memorial Day, pushing premium to more than $5 per gallon, just as U.S. automakers are enjoying a surge in sales of new passenger cars, trucks and crossover SUVs.
"It's going to be a chaotic spring, with huge (gas) price increases in some places," Tom Kloza, of the Oil Pricing Information Service, told Hybrid Cars.com.
Gas at $4 a gallon historically has been a trigger for Americans to begin changing their buying and driving habits. The last few years, sales of fuel-efficient vehicles have taken off with the higher fuel prices, with cars like the Toyota Prius and other hybrids coveted as sales of big pickups, large SUVs and vans sagged.
Past is prologue.
I remember the envious looks I got from stressed-out SUV owners as I filled my wife's fuel-sipping Toyota with regular unleaded during gasoline price spikes in the 2000s, and that Corolla got less than 30 mpg in combined city-highway driving.
Some modern hybrids and all-electrics get nearly double that.
Yet U.S. consumers bought just 19,874 plug-in electrics in 2011, the industry research firm LMC Automotive said. As pump prices came down demand for hybrids quickly faded as consumers couldn't justify the initial upfront extra cost for the space-age technology and electronics.
Experts said you'd have to keep a hybrid at least six years to begin realizing fuel cost savings significant enough to justify the hybrid's higher sticker price compared to a comparable internal combustion engine version of a similar vehicle.
A 2013 Ford Fusion Energi will carry a premium thousands higher than a regular gasoline-powered Fusion when the electric sedan goes on sale late this year.
Despite predictions only 70,000 to 100,000 electrics will be sold in 2012, more automakers hope to be ready in time to grab a share of the potentially larger market. LMC projects sales of plug-ins will grow to nearly 170,000 vehicles in 2013 and to 250,000 by 2015, accounting for 1.5 percent of total U.S. vehicle sales of 16.5 million.
Plug-in electrics are coming this year from Ohio's AMP Electric Vehicles -- which plans to convert Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mercedes M-Class SUVs by replacing their gas engines and transmissions with electric motors and batteries -- Audi and BMW, which plans to lease an all-electric version of its 1 Series coupe.
Cadillac is patterning its ELR hybrid on the Chevy Volt which debuted last year, Fiat plans limited production of a Fiat 500 EV, and Ford, which begins selling the Focus Electric next month in California, New York and New Jersey, will offer the plug-in hybrid Ford C-Max this fall. The C-Max has a small 2-liter gas engine and an electric motor with batteries that can be charged in as little as 3.5 hours.
Honda begins leasing an all-electric Fit hatchback this summer on the West and East coasts with a $399 monthly lease, The New York Times reported. The 2013 Accord also will be offered as a plug-in hybrid with a 2-liter gasoline engine and two electric motors. A plug-in hybrid version of Toyota's Prius v wagon hits showrooms this fall along with the plug-in electric RAV4 EV crossover SUV.
In the upscale market, Infiniti plans to unveil a two-seat sports hybrid at the Geneva auto show in March, Mercedes-Benz is getting into the act with a 526-horsepower, super-electric called the SLS AMG E-Cell and the Times says Porsche is working on a 730-horsepower plug-in 918 Spyder hybrid capable of 198 mph while getting 70 mpg.
That dream sports hybrid will cost more than $800,000.
The king of the plug-ins right now is the 2012 Mitsubishi i -- an egg-shaped $29,125 electric car rated by the U.S. EPA at 126 miles per gallon (equivalent) on the highway and 99 mpg in the city. But that vehicle -- named "Greenist" by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy -- is rated at just 63 horsepower with a range of 62 miles and top speed of 81 mph.
The Honda Civic Natural Gas tied with the 2012 Nissan Leaf electric for second on the group's "Greenist Vehicle" list, followed by the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, Smart fortwo, Scion iQ, Honda Civic Hybrid, Lexus CT 200h, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Honda CR-Z and the Toyota Yaris.
Other traditional fuel-sippers include the 2012 Volkswagen Golf/Jetta diesel and the near-twin 2012 Hyundai Accent and 2012 Kia Rio, that get an identical 30 mpg city/40 mph highway and 34 mpg in combined driving with a manual transmission.
Plug-in electric driver seeks "charging opportunity"
Owners of the all-electric Nissan Leaf and plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt are making use of the more than 2,400 charging stations nationwide, even though Volt drivers can rely on a gasoline engine to help recharge their batteries.
As a matter of principle, many drivers of hybrids prefer to run on batteries as long as possible and drivers of all-electrics have no choice. The payoff is motoring for pennies a mile as opposed to paying $3.60 per gallon of gas to go 25 or so miles on the highway.
"A charging station is great as long as it's part of your destination," Rob Peterson, a spokesman for General Motors Volt, told the Chicago Tribune. But a Volt owner said it doesn't make sense to drive miles out of the way to sit at a charging station for an hour or two.
Nearly 80 percent of plug-in electric owners charged their vehicles at home.
The Volt owner had traded in his $38,000 all-electric Nissan Leaf because running the heater in the frigid Chicago winter significantly drained battery power and reduced mileage per charge.
That's a lesson learned by early adopters of plug-in electrics who comprise less than 1 percent of total vehicle buyers. Automotive industry watcher Edmunds.com said hybrids made up just 2.46 percent of the overall car market.
"We're in the covered-wagon days of this industry," senior analyst Michelle Krebs told the Tribune. "We're in a pioneer time."
But recharging a Leaf is roughly equivalent to using a clothes dryer or two hair dryers at the same time -- and electricity is cheaper when you use it overnight.
"One vehicle's demand can be [the equivalent of the electric load] anywhere up from three quarters of a house up to three houses," a spokesman for Project Get Ready, an initiative of the Rocky Mountain Institute, told U.S. News & World Report.
Chrysler says 'no thanks' to loan
Chrysler, which once said it needed a federal energy loan to retool for hybrid and electric vehicles, has changed its mind.
Chrysler earlier this month dropped its request for less than $3.5 billion from the U.S. Department of Energy, saying it can come up with competitive, fuel-efficient vehicles without a government loan.
"The Department of Energy's proposed terms were very restrictive and compliance would have negatively affected our operational flexibility," the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker said in a statement.
Chrysler posted a $183 million profit in 2011 -- it's first year in the black since 2005.
The federal government has awarded $9.1 billion in loans to automakers -- $5.9 billion to Ford, $1.4 billion to Nissan and $529 million to California start-up Fisker Automotive Inc. -- under a $25 billion Energy Department loan program funded during the George W. Bush administration.