Car buyers put fuel economy in back seat

Fuel efficiency hits 20-year low. Drivers want good mileage, but in a

Years of cheap gasoline, economic prosperity, and pursuit of a free-wheeling go-anywhere image have taken their toll on fuel conservation.

In fact, with automobile fuel efficiency clocking in at a 20-year low, the days when drivers prized diesel Volkswagen Rabbits seem as ancient as tailfins.

To environmentalists, plunging fuel efficiency signals a need to reform government standards begun in 1974 to reduce reliance on foreign oil.

But, while drivers say they'd love to get better mileage, it's America's love affair with sport-utility vehicles that's pushing fuel economy down. So it may take rising gas prices to give car buyers a 1970s-style appreciation of their fuel gauge.

"People are purchasing access to a perceived lifestyle," says John Bradley, a senior transportation researcher at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Washington.

Average fuel mileage for 1999 light vehicles was 23.8 miles per gallon, 0.6 m.p.g. less than last year. That's the biggest drop since the government began setting standards in 1974, and the lowest overall mileage since 1980 (see chart), according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which released the new study.

The EPA blames the drop on the growing appetite for light trucks, which include sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), minivans, and pickups. In 1988, light trucks made up 15 percent of the US auto sales, versus 46 percent this year.

But that doesn't mean Americans have lost interest in conservation.

On the contrary, 70 percent of SUV drivers wish they got better mileage and would support stricter fuel-economy regulations on them, according to a World Wildlife Federation study last year.

But "when people drive these things into the wilderness, they're polluting the wilderness," says Daniel Becker, a spokesman for the Sierra Club in Washington and an outspoken critic of the auto industry.

Whether it's due to generational differences or the influence of car-company ads, image seems to outweigh fuel economy on the car-buyer's checklist.

And automakers haven't argued with shifting tastes, since light trucks have looser fuel-economy standards under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy system. For five years, those minimums have been frozen at 27.5 miles per gallon for cars, on average, and 20.7 m.p.g. for light trucks.

In a $50 billion transportation spending bill President Clinton is expected to sign this week, Congress again forbade the Transportation Department from raising or even studying the CAFE standards.

Passed in 1974 as an effort to reduce US dependence on foreign oil and reduce pollution, CAFE forced automakers to build smaller, lighter more aerodynamic cars. And average fuel consumption fell steadily from 15.3 m.p.g. in 1975 to 25.9 m.p.g. in 1987 and 1988.

Since then, fuel economy has steadily fallen despite technological improvements - as cars have grown bigger and heavier.

Environmentalists, concerned about automotive pollution contributing to global warming, say light trucks should be held to the same strict standards as cars.

Carmakers say they're just responding to consumer demand. "Consumers are savvy and make up their own minds," says

Gloria Bergquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington. "Gas is cheaper than water or Starbucks coffee.... People are moving out farther [from cities]. So other things are becoming more important than fuel economy."

But with the recent jump in gas prices, fuel economy remains a concern.

"Consumers want the most fuel-efficient vehicle they can get that meets their needs for safety, performance, and utility," says Diane Steed, president of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice in Washington and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which enforces CAFE standards.

Indeed, the fastest-growing segment of light trucks is small, car-based SUVs, which average 24 m.p.g. And consumers have shown interest in new hybrid electric/gasoline cars being introduced by Honda and Toyota that get nearly 70 m.p.g.

"We have to decide as a nation if we're serious about fuel economy," says Ms. Steed. "If our real goal is getting away from fossil fuels, there are better ways to do it than CAFE." Europe and Japan, she says, get better economy than America by selling many more diesel-powered vehicles.

They also heavily tax gasoline.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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