Lean, Clean Driving Machine

Criticizing sport utility vehicles has become as popular as, well, SUVs. Why, even "Titanic" star Leonardo DiCaprio railed against them during his recent interview of Bill Clinton. The president wisely responded that SUVs would only be sustainable over the long run if they become "much more" fuel-efficient.

Being gas hogs is only the half of it. The bigger, road-hogging SUVs are excessively unsafe and polluting.

Even Ford Motor Co. has doubts about SUVs, though some of its six models bring up to $15,000 each in profits. Last week, chairman William Clay Ford Jr. told shareholders in a refreshingly frank "corporate citizenship report" that Ford's approach to SUVs and the environment "has not always been responsible" even though it's the industry leader.

Obviously conflicted over goals, the company recently introduced the outsized Excursion SUV that gets about 10 m.p.g. in the city and can equal the weight of two Grand Cherokee Jeeps.

But the great-grandson of founder Henry Ford is trying to reconcile his environmental views and sense of social responsibility with producing dirty, dangerous machines that customers love for their versatility. He says that if his company weren't making them, other "less responsible" companies would.

And he laments that Wall Street investors don't have the long-term patience to back development of eco-friendly, safer SUVs. He hopes to plow SUV profits into research. And his company is advertising the vehicles less than competitors.

Honda and Toyota are way ahead of Detroit automakers with their introduction of new hybrid electric-gasoline models this year. Do American carmakers need a corporate- culture shift to be environmentally responsible? Or an act of Congress?

Perhaps the answer is in the market. What if Mr. Ford went beyond shareholders to customers and sparked a national dialogue on making auto purchases that were earth- and people-friendly?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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