Low gas prices bring used-car bargains

Gas prices fluctuate all the time, so it makes little sense to base a car purchase on that alone.

Just three months ago, I wrote about the way low gas prices have shifted American auto-buying preferences to less-efficient trucks and SUVs, and why that made little sense.

Gas in South Carolina was about $2.75 a gallon then, and is hovering around $2 a gallon now.

My point then, and now, is that gas prices bounce up and down all the time, and it makes no sense to make a long-term capital purchase based on the short-term price of a commodity.

It turns out that this shift in car-buying preferences may offer a real money-saving benefit, however, to some auto shoppers.

Put simply, it could cost less to buy a used, fuel-efficient car this year than it did last year.

When gas was $4 a gallon not so long ago, fuel-efficient cars were selling at a premium and fuel-hungry trucks were discounted. Now, the opposite is true, according to analysts with NADA Used Car Guide.

The car-pricing experts affiliated with the National Auto Dealers Association came out with their 2015 used vehicle market forecast several weeks ago, and here’s what they said the forecast means for used vehicle shoppers:

“For consumers interested in purchasing a used, midsize or large pickup truck or utility vehicle, prices are expected to stay high due to low gas prices. On dealer lots, a 5 percent or higher jump in price is forecast for the midsize and large pickup segments, while the midsize and large utility segments should see a 1 percent or greater bump in price.

“The unusually low gas prices will have the opposite effect on compact car shoppers, with midsize car prices seeing a 4 percent or higher drop in value. Consumers interested in buying a car in the used subcompact or compacts segments will see a 6 percent or greater drop in price.

So, expect higher prices for used pickups and lower prices for small gas-sipping cars.

That’s a financial bonus for anyone who was already planning to buy a fuel-efficient car. Of course, over the long term, those car owners will save money on gas as well, because they’ll burn less gas.

As with stocks and real estate, the time to get a good deal is when fewer people want the thing you are planning to buy.

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But unlike stocks and real estate, you’re not taking a financial risk by purchasing an out-of-favor fuel-efficient car.

If gas prices don’t rise — fat chance of that — you still have economical transportation. If gas prices do rise, then you’ll save even more, and the resale value of your car will likely increase.

Statistics on fueleconomy.gov show that 2015 model pickup trucks get about 19 miles to the gallon with a combination of city and highway driving. Small cars, such as a Ford Focus, Mazda 3 or Honda Civic, get about 31. Older models also show about a 10 mpg gap between smaller cars and pickups.

Even at today’s super-low gas prices, if you drive 12,000 miles a year, you would save about $490 on gas with a 31-mpg car versus a 19-mpg truck. Double that if the price of gas goes back up to $4.

Now, some people need big trucks to tow large boats or haul construction equipment. But if you’re not one of those folks, this might be your year for a good deal on a car.

According to the NADA forecast, supplies of used luxury compact SUVs on dealer lots are expected to rise by 33 percent this year, so there should be deals in that auto segment as well.