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Opinion: America, quit whining about gas

By James Foxall, Special for CNN
updated 4:59 PM EST, Thu March 1, 2012
  • In the UK, a gallon of gas can easily come to around $10, says writer, compared to around $4 in the U.S.
  • Foxall: High price of fuel impacts the type of cars that Europeans drive
  • Europeans now discuss their motors in terms of miles per gallon, says writer, rather than miles per hour
  • Writer: America needs petrol prices to double if people are to permanently park up their 15mpg pick-up trucks

Editor's note: James Foxall is an award-winning motoring journalist based in the UK. He was motoring editor for the News of the World between 2004 and 2011 and is a regular contributor to Auto Express, CAR, Shell's V-zine and Diesel Car among others.

London (CNN) -- Gas prices might have breached the $4 per gallon mark in the U.S., but there won't be much sympathy for the American plight in Europe. In fact, that U.S. price of £2.52 a gallon looks highly affordable compared to the UK's current average cost of £6.22 ($9.85).

In some places here you'll pay an eye-watering £7.27 ($11.52) for a gallon of super unleaded. And prices throughout the rest of Europe are similarly high. But it is worth sparing a thought for the hard-pressed Norwegians who'll pay £7.28 ($11.54) for a gallon of the regular stuff across their country.

If the price of oil was the only factor to dictate the expense of gas it wouldn't be such a bitter pill. But it isn't. The government decides how much we're going to pay per gallon. Surprise, surprise, it also decides that the majority of it should be diverted to their coffers. So of our £6.22 average, £3.74 ($5.92), or a bit over 60%, ends up in the Treasury's back pocket.

The government isn't the only guilty party. Fuel producers take 36%, which goes some way to explaining Shell's obscene £18.1bn ($28.6bn) profits from last year.

What's the highest price you've seen?

James Foxall
James Foxall

And of course unrest in the Middle East including sanctions against Syria and simmering discontent over Iran isn't helping. But every time the price of oil goes up, the British Government is quids in. Its second tax, VAT (Value Added Tax, similar to U.S. sales taxes), is levied on the final cost, giving us an inescapable double whammy.

Hardly unsurprisingly, all this money grabbing has had a noticeable effect on the cars Europeans drive. People now discuss their motors in terms of miles per gallon rather than miles per hour. Owning a car that does a mere 35mpg seems so last century. And no one will be impressed unless your mpg figure starts with a six.

Would I like to be smoking about in a dirty great beast with a dipsomaniac's thirst for the hard stuff? Of course I would. But if I could afford to buy such a car, running it would be akin to having a mistress who drinks champagne rather than chardonnay.

Fuel is a drug the U.S. has long since needed weaning off.
James Foxall

At first I felt deep resentment at being forced into a small car. But you know what? Today's small cars are big in benefits. The Volkswagen Polo I now drive is the same size as the first ever Golf. The difference is it's comfier and has more features, including a petrol gauge that moves in slow motion.

Fuel is a drug the U.S. has long since needed weaning off. Admittedly Americans have to cover greater distances than Europeans. But you don't need a glorified double bed powered by a throbbing great V8 to do that. A sensibly-sized car with a two-liter turbo will do the job just as comfortably.

And with developing nations such as China, Brazil and India demanding ever more fuel, the planet can't put up with anyone's penchant for gas-guzzling monsters any more.

But if the European experience is anything to go by, the $4 gallon isn't going to alter driving habits dramatically. America needs petrol prices to double if people are to permanently park up their 15mpg pick-up trucks. Maybe then it'll elicit a bit of sympathy from over here.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Foxall.

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