I took the call from a friend in Detroit, my former hometown. A call that, with winter upon us, usually involves a despairing (but secretly satisfied) accounting of brutal snowfall or bone-cracking temperatures. But this year’s call involved the pleasant, nay, party-down mathematics of gasoline prices: “It’s $1.78 a gallon down the street here,” my friend said. He then joked about buying a Hummer.
Only many Americans aren’t joking. And foreign investors are probably dreaming of those mothballed Hummer production lines, considering how many pickup trucks, Cadillac Escalades and other drill-baby-drill conveyances are flying out of showrooms. You remember, the models that dealers couldn’t give away when the economy and car industry tanked, or whenever gas prices soared. The models we all assumed, not long ago, were dinosaurs bound for some new theme park, preferably in oil-soaked Alaska. For those with short memories (read: most Americans) it all peaked in July 2008, when a gallon of unleaded rose to $4.11.
Do something, Americans demanded of their government, the Oil Fairy, anyone. That “something” turned out to be a financial meltdown. In response, the government cobbled together a Cash for Clunkers program to rescue a flatlining auto industry and bribe people to trade polluting guzzlers for more fuel-efficient models.
Today, according to AAA, a gallon of regular gas averages precisely $2.00 a gallon nationwide, the most sweet-and-low unleaded since 2009. Retail averages are below two bucks in 26 states. That includes $1.79 in South Carolina, Missouri and Kansas. And this time, the economy is healthier; IIHS Global Insights says cheap gas equates to a $100 billion tax cut for 2015, like a $750 gift card to every household.
On one hand, it warms my Norman Rockwell hearts to see families piling into cars for road trips they can suddenly afford. Americans are doing the Griswold thing, setting new highs for miles driven. National Parks are seeing millions more visitors. And while consumer spending hasn’t risen dramatically overall, people are going crazy on travel, restaurant meals and, you guessed it, new cars. The Drive lives for this stuff: When a record 17.5 million new cars hit driveways this year, we’re reminded that Americans love motoring as much as ever.