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Pain at the pump 

It's a familiar cycle by now: In the wake of some cataclysmic event like Hurricane Katrina, Gustav or Ike or 9/11 — or sometimes apparently just for the hell of it — oil industry experts get on TV and start preparing us for a fast and hard rise in gas prices.

We, in turn, freak out, complain, think about changing our driving habits, and watch the prices go up higher than we'd ever imagined possible. Then, after awhile, they ease off a few dimes a gallon — still significantly higher than when the whole process started, but far enough below the peak that we resume our gas-guzzling feeling like we're getting a bargain again, and, in my imagination anyway, the oil execs lean back in their giant office chairs and laugh and laugh and laugh, until they start planning for the next round.

But maybe not this time.

Maybe, this time, the price of gas got high enough for long enough, and with no obvious cause, that the change in America's ways will be something closer to permanent.

The reason for hope: This time around, a significant number of us have actually invested money in saving gas.

So many of us have traded in SUVs that even the few chumps who've bought them for a song are on the losing end of the deal because their value continues to drop so fast. We have bought out the nation's supply of hybrids and the local supply of Honda Civics, and brought the Big Three automakers to their knees because they haven't been able to produce enough of the small cars we want now. We've bought motorcycles and scooters, placing 85 mpg above safety and convenience. Occasionally, even in Little Rock, we have filled city buses to standing-room-only. We cut back so much on gas consumption last summer that for once, the supply/demand equilibrium tilted in our favor.

“I've got [used] '08 Tundras out here that have devalued $6,000 or $7,000 since I traded for them,” said Chris Brown, general sales manager at Bale Honda. “… It's no longer cool to have the big nice SUV, the $40,000 to $50,000 SUV. Now it's cool to drive a four-door Civic around.”

Cool, sure, but not practical for all of us — just try fitting two rear-facing car seats in the back of a Civic or hauling a trailer full of construction equipment behind a Chevy Aveo. Brown said he thinks the technology will catch up with demand in a few years and we'll see bigger vehicles with markedly better gas mileage. But those who can't hold off buying a behemoth until then? Brown says they're pretty much screwed, even with prices so low they seem like they must be typos.

“It's getting ridiculous,” he said. “I heard yesterday that the Nissan Armada, their full-sized truck — they're discounting those almost 50 percent. You're talking about a $40,000 truck selling for $22,000. You think you're getting a good deal, but now all of a sudden it's worth $15,000 on the street. They're going to be dinosaurs. They're worthless right now.”

He said the drop in value on big, expensive vehicles is hurting the credit industry just like the housing crisis.

“We've got people driving Tahoes that they owe $30,000 on and it's worth $15,000,” he said. “They've got $600 payments, plus $200 in gas — they can't afford it.”

Meanwhile, in late July Brown had no Civics on his lot, and no Fits — Honda's new subcompact hatchback. Want a Civic hybrid? Hope you can wait a couple of months.

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