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HOW MUCH CAR OR TRUCK IS TOO MUCH?

San Johnson’s pickup truck is driving him to the poorhouse.

“That thing they say at the Dodge dealer, 13 to 15 mpg, that’s a bunch of bullcrap,” the 51-year-old says while waiting to fill up his 2005 Dodge Ram at Huey’s Mart.

“It’s about 11,” he continues, “eight when I’m pulling my trailer.”

Like many Las Vegans, Johnson plans to downsize to a more fuel-efficient vehicle, as soon as he can scrape up the cash.

“Some of the little trucks, like the Toyota Tundra, they’ve got a full-size bed in the back,” says Johnson, an independent handyman who needs to haul bulky tools from job to job.

Unfortunately, Johnson can’t even scrape up the cash to fill his pickup right now. He walks inside Huey’s to place $60 cash on pump No. 5 — and that’s after waiting for 20 minutes at the only valley service station never to break the $4 mark.

“It’s really having an effect on me, man, I’m telling you,” says Johnson, who spends as much as $300 per week on gasoline.

“My operational costs in the last eight years have went up over 300 percent,” he says. “Everywhere I look, I’m trying to figure out when am I gonna break even.”

Jeremy Muklow also feels the pinch. He says he plans to ditch his big ride, a 10 miles-per-gallon 1977 Dodge Power Wagon, for a Honda CDR motorcycle. The 25-year-old iron worker hopes the trade will slash his gasoline bill from $120 per week to $20.

“Dude, it’s depressing,” says Muklow, who has had to give up snowboarding and dirtbike-riding, his two favorite pastimes.

“I can’t go so many places I used to,” Muklow says. “It’s really frustrating.”

Findlay Toyota reports that fuel efficiency is now the No. 1 concern of its new car customers.

“We’ve seen an upsurge in demand for our smaller cars,” says general manager Rich Abajian, who reports that 70 percent of customers seek a car that gets good mileage and 20 percent specifically request Toyota’s Prius hybrid, which has a combined city/highway mpg of 46 and a base sticker price of $23,000.

“Two years ago, people weren’t coming in and asking about them, because they thought they were too gimmicky,” Abajian says. “And six months ago, only about 5 percent were asking.”

As recently as March, Abajian says Findlay had 15 unsold Priuses on its lot. Now there are none, and 100 are on back order. (The longest wait is about three months.)

Although trading in a gas guzzler is always the most fuel-efficient choice, it is not always the most cost-efficient one.

A recent Consumer Reports study warns that downsizing too soon can cost more in the long run than drivers will save at the pump. At issue is the cost of depreciation and loan interest. Depreciation accounts for 48 percent of total ownership costs in the first five years of ownership, while fuel (according to 2007 prices) averages 21 percent.

As a rule of thumb, therefore, if you financed a new car less than three years ago and haven’t paid off the loan, even a hybrid won’t pay off.

In addition, as Abajian points out, the market value of used gas guzzlers keeps dropping as gasoline prices rise.

“You look at what cars are running through the auctions for, and the value of a big truck coming in on trade is decreasing in the last 90 days considerably,” he says. “So it doesn’t always make sense to trade in something like a big truck, because the money they’re losing on that truck probably would pay for a lot of gas.”

Some Las Vegans say they’re holding onto their gas guzzlers whatever the price of gasoline.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Chris Tromba, proud owner of a 1992 Lamborghini Diablo, whose 12 cylinders annihilate gasoline at the rate of six miles per gallon.

“It could be $100 a gallon,” the 36-year-old real estate appraiser says. “It’s a 200 mph car, and it was always a dream of mine to own something like that.”

For daily use, Tromba relies on a Mercedes 430 CLK. But he still manages to rack up 12,000 miles on his Lamborghini each year.

“I drive it for pleasure, not necessity,” he says. “I just like a lot of pleasure.

“It’s fun being king of the road.”

Even Tromba’s not entirely unaffected by the $1,000 he and his wife now spend on gasoline per month, however.

“That’s why we’re thinking about converting our main cars to vegetable oil,” he says.

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0456.

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