For most consumers, two of our largest investments are a house and a car — hopefully in that order.
When we shop for a vehicle, most of us focus on the sticker price, but that's actually only a fraction of what you'll pay for the privilege of driving.
Environmentalist group The Union of Concerned Scientists this week pointed out that over the life of a car, most consumers actually pay almost as much in gasoline as they do in the purchase price. And with climbing fuel costs, that could increase.
The concerned scientists assume a conservative fuel economy of 22.8 miles per gallon, driving 15,600 miles the first year and 4.5 percent fewer miles each year over the next 14 years.
Even with those numbers, the group estimates the average driver would spend more than $22,600 over the lifetime of the vehicle, as compared to an average purchase price of $24,500.
With older vehicles already on the road, the difference is much more striking.
In 2011, the average consumer used more than 1,100 gallons of gasoline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The national average cost for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline was $3.60, according to AAA.
At that rate, the average consumer spent $3,960 on fuel last year and would pay more than $59,000 over a 15-year vehicle lifetime.
Automakers are scrambling to meet strict new fuel economy standards that are set to increase to a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025.
The change likely will drive up vehicle purchase prices, but consumers could save money in the long run.
Natural gas producers point to the same figures as evidence that consumers can benefit from vehicles powered by natural gas.
Converting a gasoline-powered car or truck to run on natural gas can cost several thousand dollars, but the natural gas industry says consumers can make up that cost by paying only $1 to $1.50 for a gallon-equivalent of natural gas.
Electric and electric-hybrid cars can benefit from the same math, with higher up-front costs but less-expensive fuel over the vehicle lifetime.