The Prius-Hummer Phenomenon

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The Toyota Prius

Americans are paying 12% more at the gas pump then they did just one month ago. At $2.80 a gallon, gas prices are up over 30 cents in just 30 days. Such a rapid rise in prices is sure to cause alarm, yet according to search term data, we aren't fazed. Last week's Web searches for General Motors' Hummer outnumbered Toyota's signature hybrid, the Prius, by more than two-to-one.

According to Cambridge Energy Research Associates, our monthly expenses on gasoline amounted, on average, to only 3.8% of total household budget in 2006. Yet amid all the confusing data on the state of the U.S. economy, what we spend at the local service station is the most tangible way for consumers to measure the value of their dollar.

It was no surprise, then, that when pump prices reached $3.00 per gallon in September 2005 searches for "gas prices" surged to nearly 10 times their normal level. What is surprising is that "gas price" searches do not mirror the rise and fall of of what we pay at the pump. But once a price threshold is crossed, we become immediately -- although temporarily -- concerned.

The most common destination during a search for "gas prices" gives us a picture of the typical concerned consumer. Gas Buddy captures 27% of all visits from "gas price" searches. The site is a searchable database of local gas station prices submitted by cost-conscience users. Visitors to the site are primarily male (62.8%), over the age of 55 (56.3%), and on a fixed income earning less than $30,000 per year (27.5%).

Searches for types of vehicles can also be telling, namely information on gas-guzzling SUVs and energy-efficient hybrids. Searches for hybrid vehicles spike in unison with pump prices, but our interest quickly retreats at the first sign of a drop. Searches for SUVs are counterintuitive. When gas prices go up, searches on these vehicles do not go down.

Another clue to the concerns of the cost-conscious gas consumer is the second site visited after "gas price" searches, MSN Autos, which provides research, pricing and reviews on new and used vehicles. The site captures 12.9% of searches, indicating that some consumers may be considering purchasing a more fuel-efficient vehicle in light of rising gas prices.

On the other end of the spectrum is the driver of the civilian version of an urban assault vehicle. Visitors to the official Hummer site are equally split between men and women, primarily 25-34 (33.3%) earning $60,000 to $100,000 per year (56.0%), and according to search data, not phased at all by gas prices or miles per gallon.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.