Big 3 pump up while drivers pay out

Detroit is pushing hot wheels this summer, figuring Americans want to play NASCAR driver in new versions of vintage muscle cars. But a let's-burn-rubber message seems likely to stall in an era of $3-a-gallon-gas and more fuel-efficient foreign brands.

A few days after the pipeline to Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil field shut down for emergency repairs earlier this month, General Motors announced it would revive the Camaro, a brawny V-8 favorite of the 1960s and '70s. Ford is hyping its souped-up 325-horsepower Shelby GT coupe. And DaimlerChrysler is strutting the 425-horsepower V-8 Charger SRT/8, which gets about 17 m.p.g. in combined city/highway driving, gas mileage you'd expect from a full-size pickup truck.

Yes, these are limited edition models aimed at enthusiasts. And the companies do make many other models with better gas mileage, though they make few with the very highest m.p.g. on the market. But the story they're selling with these gas guzzlers is an old one: the need for speed.

So, who's winning today's customers? That would be Asian brands hawking fuel efficiency. Detroit's share of the US market continues to slip while Toyota and Honda gain. Asian carmakers' sales rose 5 percent in the first half of 2006 while America's Big Three lost 8 percent. In July, for the first time ever, Toyota sped by Ford to become the No. 2 bestselling automaker in the US. At the same time, Ford announced a $254 million loss for this year's second quarter. No. 1 General Motors lost more than $10.6 billion last year.

Though Toyota and Honda sell a wide variety of vehicles, including a few gas guzzlers, they're known for their high gas-mileage cars, especially their 50 m.p.g. hybrids. How have they read the signs of the times better than Detroit? That's a subject for some sober self-examination by US automakers.

Big cars and big SUVs with plenty of get-up-and-go fit the American psyche, at least as it's been conditioned by millions of advertising dollars. But a few $75 fill-ups at the pump can quickly put a damper on all the high-horsepower hijinks, as slumping SUV sales have shown.

The marketplace will fix all this itself – eventually. Buyers now demand fuel efficiency, and the Big Three will shift gears, however painfully. Detroit says it's working on a better hybrid technology that will make the US the world leader. But will that effort end up like other promised alternative-fuel vehicles, as a mirage on the horizon? One thing is certain: Asian auto engineers won't be standing still.

Congress has done virtually nothing to help. The average car today gets only 24.6 m.p.g. on the highway, and the average new SUV or truck gets a pitiful 18.4 m.p.g., the EPA says. Congress could ramp up fuel-efficiency standards to signal that America needs more efficient vehicles. The EPA could also mandate that vehicle dashboards display in real time the gas mileage the vehicle is getting, helping drivers reinforce fuel-efficient driving habits.

Some drivers of hybrids do this already. They use online forums to post photos of their dashboard calculators showing 60, 70, or more m.p.g. Maybe who's got the best gas mileage, rather than who claims the most horses under the hood, can be a new status symbol for our times.

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