The Anti-SUV President?

Buying a vehicle with better fuel economy can be an act of peace.

It would reduce US dependence on nations holding the world's largest oil reserves, where terrorists can find support (Saudi Arabia), possibly pick up a weapon of mass destruction (Iraq), or be given money and arms for fighting Israel (Iran).

That simple message seems to be making limited headway with the US auto industry, American consumers, and the Bush administration. Even a religious group has jumped on this slow-moving bandwagon with an anti-SUV television commercial that asks viewers: "What would Jesus drive?"

The latest advance, if that's what it can be called, is rules proposed by the Bush administration that would require automakers to raise the gas mileage of sport-utility vehicles, pickups, and minivans by 7 percent, or 1.5 m.p.g., by 2007. The proposal, which would not be final until April 2003, may not last through all the power jockeying on this issue.

Many industry experts say Detroit can raise the mileage even more than that proposed small amount but that companies are reluctant to do so because it would cut into high profit margins they now earn for the larger vehicles. (Those profits help make up for not competing well with smaller Japanese cars.)

Ford, GM, and DaimlerChrysler all committed themselves to higher mileage two years ago, despite their PR that stiff standards would force them to make vehicles less safe and far too expensive for consumers.

President Bush's weak proposal could just be his way of fending off criticism of a likely presidential contender, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who wants a 50 percent increase in fuel economy by 2015. Still, the minimalist Bush plan goes beyond anything President Clinton did in two terms, or what a joint conference of Congress decided on last fall. And it would help reverse a recent downward trend in gas mileage.

Detroit is banking on technological advances - such as engines that shut down half the cylinders while cruising, or a more efficient transmission - to achieve about 5 to 10 percent gains in mileage. Up to now the pressure for Detroit to change has come from either the government standards or from Japanese carmakers who are winning over buyers who want better mileage.

Adding an antiterrorism theme to this movement against big SUVs and hefty pickups might persuade more Americans to think twice before putting lifestyle ahead of country.

How much will Bush, the antiterrorism president, buy into it?

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