KATHY ELLEMENT worries she may be forced to give up her big car. ``I don't like it at all,'' the Detroit lab technician complains. ``I don't like small cars. Now that I'm getting older and making some money, I want a big car. I want comfort.'' But if you listen to United States automakers, Ms. Ellement and a lot of other people like her won't have much choice in the years to come.
On May 17, Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner broke with Reagan administration policy, increasing the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) - the mileage required of the ``typical'' American car - to 27.5 miles a gallon. What really worries Detroit is the growing support for further increases in CAFE - some proposals calling for 50 miles a gallon by the end of the century.
That, the automakers warn, could mean a return to the undersize, underpowered, and unpopular vehicles that populated dealer showrooms in the early 1980s.
The V-8 engine, once considered a dinosaur slated for extinction, has made a comeback. A growing number of automakers are even offering V-12s.
Of the Big Three, the Chrysler Corporation is in the best position to meet current and future increases in CAFE. Most of its vehicles use fuel-efficient four- and six-cylinder engines.
The other US automakers have also made efforts to increase fuel economy, General Motors spending billions to downsize since the last energy crisis. Ironically, the move paralleled the biggest market-share decline in GM history. General Motors is meeting the current 26.5 mile-a-gallon CAFE requirement, though it expects to fall 0.5 m.p.g. short in 1990.
The Ford Motor Company will miss both the 1989 and 1990 standards, in large part because of the popularity of traditional American muscle cars like the V-8-powered Mustang GT and the turbocharged Probe GT.
For each 0.1 m.p.g. an automaker falls short, it faces a $5 fine for every car it sells. That could mean a $200 million fine for General Motors next year, though Ford and GM both hope to avert any fines by applying credits accrued during the years they exceeded CAFE.
In approving the 27.5 m.p.g. CAFE standard, Transportation Secretary Skinner stressed that the need for energy conservation outweighs any economic burden the change may place on the industry.
It's not really the 27.5 m.p.g. standard that Detroit is worried about. A bill recently introduced by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio would raise CAFE to 34 m.p.g. by 1996. The Center for Auto Safety, a Washington consumer lobby group, says that's not enough. It is calling for a 55 m.p.g. CAFE by the year 2001.
The basic arguments favoring a higher CAFE are the same ones made since 1973, when it became painfully apparent just how hard the nation could be hit when Mideast turmoil cut oil supplies.
Yet today there are more cars on the road driving more miles than in 1970. American passenger cars consumed nearly 71 billion gallons of gasoline last year, compared with 68 billion in 1970. Total fuel consumption by all motor vehicles is up 50 percent over the same period.