PhotoIt seems to be an economic rule of the automotive market. When fuel prices are high, cars that get good gasoline mileage command a premium price.

But when fuel prices fall, consumers tend to view these cars as less desirable and dealers have to provide strong incentives to move them off the lot.

We find ourselves in the latter scenario and, if you are in the market for a new or late-model used car, it may be worth your while to kick the tires on a few hybrids and other high-mileage models.

At one time Toyota placed a surcharge on the price of its Prius hybrid. But last month the Japanese automaker was offering very attractive lease terms on the Prius – $999 down and $249 a month for 36 months.

Honda hybrids lagging

Automotive website Torque News reportsHonda has seen a dramatic drop in its hybrid sales, concluding the higher costs of hybrids, compared to 4-cylinder gasoline engines, can't be justified in light of $2 a gallon gasoline.

Even gasoline-powered cars getting great fuel economy are requiring more attractive incentives to ring up sales. Last month Honda's Civic compact could be leased for as little as $149 a month.

There is nothing to suggest that these deals on fuel-efficient cars will disappear anytime soon and consumers in the car market might be wise to give them strong consideration.

Just because gasoline is relatively cheap now – and experts predict it will be for some time to come – doesn't mean prices at the pump won't rebound at some point. In fact, it could come earlier than the experts think.

Return of the speculators

In recent years, oil prices have been influenced, not just by the natural law of supply and demand, but by commodity speculators as well. Many of these investors fled the oil market late in the year when it became clear that supply would continue to outstrip demand for a while.

But not all have left the market.'s Matthew Yglesias noted last week that speculators have bought or leased old oil tankers and other storage facilities and have been quickly filling them up with cheap oil.

Oil producers can't just turn off the spigot when the price of crude drops – that's a costly and time-consuming process so they just keep pumping. That oil has to go somewhere. When it goes into speculators' storage tanks, it's out of circulation.

Yglesias notes that actual end users of oil – refiners, airlines and heating oil companies – are once again bidding against speculators who are buying oil and sitting on it.

Betting on oil's bounce-back

They're betting that at some point – and maybe not in the distant future – oil prices will start going up again. When they do, they'll sell their cheap oil for a tidy profit.

Since most people drive their cars 6 or more years now, buying a fuel-efficient car when gas prices are low – and these cars aren't in demand – might pay off in the long run.

For most of the years that you own that new car you are likely to be paying a lot more for fuel than you are now.

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