Late-model used Toyota Prius hybrids have become the canary in the coal mine of volatile fuel prices. Their prices rose steeply over the past month in response to rising gasoline prices.
Prices of other used vehicles haven't changed much -- yet. But used-vehicle buyers and sellers expect changing prices at the pump to affect the prices of other vehicles, especially small cars and large trucks.
Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst of automotive insights at Kelley Blue Book, says prices of used 2009-11 Priuses jumped $500 to $750 in the past month or so. For example, a 2010 Prius had an average price of about $17,200 in late February, up from about $16,500 in late January. Gutierrez says if fuel prices were stable and closer to $3.15 a gallon, the 2010 Prius price would have increased about $100 or been flat.
"I would say that fuel prices have already increased the value of the Prius," Gutierrez says. "We have not seen a lot of movement yet on either the compact cars or full-sized pickups."
NADA Used Car Guide said it saw some Prius models rise an average of $450 a week for four weeks in a row.
Last week, the average price of regular gasoline hovered around $3.73 a gallon, up from about $3.37 a year earlier, according to AAA, amid widespread predictions that $4- and $5-a-gallon gasoline could be just around the corner.
Should that happen, the prices of small used cars could follow in the Prius' tire tracks.
Dave Wagner, senior manager of analytics at NADA Used Car Guide, agrees but expects that to change. Depending on how swiftly gasoline prices rise and the amount of media attention the rise gets, the impact on used-vehicle prices spreads out over the course of a month, he says.
"The reaction is based on consumer expectation of the cost of fuel in the future," Wagner says. "That expectation takes a while to change."
The guide company predicts that the average per-gallon price of gasoline will approach $4 in April, "significantly" above normal seasonal increases, Wagner says.
That would push up the average price of 1- to 5-year-old used compact cars by about 2 percent, he says. That's on top of the seasonal increase -- generally about 3 percent, though other factors could raise or temper it -- that the guide company predicts from February to April.
The company expects the average price of 1- to 5-year-old used large pickups and SUVs to slide 1.5 to 2 percent. Because of a pullback in leasing during the recession, the supply of used large pickups and SUVs is expected to drop this year by 2 percent, a situation that would have flattened or slightly lifted their prices if not for rising fuel prices, Wagner says. The supply of used small cars is expected to be relatively flat this year.