It's becoming almost an annual tradition: As fuel prices rise in the spring, so do the prices of hybrid cars.
And that's the case even if the math involved doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
"There's a little bit of irrational behavior going on," said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "As gas prices rise, consumers tend to believe it's a new reality, and they start to overreact."
Prices for used hybrid cars, including Toyota's Prius, and the hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion and Hyundai Sonata, jumped about $900 from the beginning of February to the beginning of March, according to Kelley Blue Book, which tracks car prices. Auction prices for used hybrids hit $16,974 on average on March 2.
That's because dealers have been buying up hybrids as fast as they can at auctions, anticipating a spike in demand from consumers, Guiterrez said.
Kelley Blue Book predicts that if that demand at auctions keeps up, hybrid prices will rise 20 percent in the next couple of months.
Gas prices have been climbing in the past few weeks, hitting a national average of $3.85 for a gallon of regular unleaded gas this week and topping $4 in many spots. It's the third time in four years that the average gas price has hovered at about $4 a gallon.
Fuel prices and fuel-efficient car prices seem to go hand in hand. In 2011, when gas prices approached $4 a gallon, fuel-efficient cars prices reached record highs, Kelley Blue Book said. Then as soon as gas prices fell, so did buyer appetite for fuel-efficient vehicles.
But when gas prices rise, people feel better when they pay less at the pump. Edwin Everly, a teaching assistant from Leverett, Ill., bought a Toyota Prius last March when gas prices started to surge. He could have paid less if he had waited to purchase a hybrid in November or December, but he says he doesn't care. He's happy with his car.
"I didn't want to get gouged, but I wanted something that got better gas mileage," Everly said. He was satisfied with his final purchase price -- about $22,500 -- because that's close to what he wanted to spend.
But anyone facing huge price increases should think twice, he advised. "Just sit and wait," he said. "Prices will come down again."
In July 2008, the average national price for a gallon of regular gas hit $4.11 -- and that's about when hybrid vehicles sold at a frenzied pace. Consumers, who feared gas prices would just keep rising, fought over a limited supply of hybrid cars on the market. Many buyers paid more than the manufacturer's suggested sticker price for a new Toyota Prius; the prices of used Priuses became similar to those of new ones.
In the car world, where dealers selling new vehicles often throw $3,000 rebates at customers to get them off their lots and used cars are generally at least 20 percent cheaper than new ones, that kind of buying belied a consumer fear that gas prices would just keep rising.
"We see now that prices do come back down," Guiterrez said. "And hybrid prices will come back down again, too."
Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com, said she thinks people are starting to get the message that gas prices won't stay high forever. She doesn't expect hybrid-buying hysteria this summer, though, she said.
And many buyers have already changed their driving habits after the last couple of times of skyrocketing fuel prices. People have traded down into smaller vehicles, choosing more fuel-efficient crossovers over a hulking Hummer. Or they have bought a hybrid instead of a minivan.
And some people are just tired of hearing about gas prices, Caldwell said.
"We've grown accustomed to it," she said. "It's like it's falling on deaf ears."
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