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The pursuit of fuel efficiency is a tricky one

By Asjylyn Loder, Times Staff Writer
Published August 12, 2007


General Motors only sells the Opel Astra in Europe, where GM and other U.S. auto makers average near 35 mpg -- the same target they argue they can't reach here by 2020.
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[General Motors]
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Drivers looking for a best-selling car that gets better than 30 miles to the gallon might find that car in a surprising place: General Motors, the nation's No. 1 auto maker and one of the leading opponents of raising mileage requirements on U.S. cars.

There's a catch, of course. GM only sells the Opel Astra in Europe, where GM and other U.S. auto makers average near 35 mpg - the same target they argue they can't reach here by 2020.

In Europe, Latin America and Asia, Detroit's auto makers have seen profits even as their North American divisions struggle. Much of their overseas success relies on smaller cars with better mileage, often in models that aren't offered in the United States.

Concerns about global warming and foreign oil have fueled efforts to overhaul mileage standards in the United States for the first time in more than 30 years. While some stricter measures seem likely, the auto industry has battled against what it calls "drastic" and "radical" increases in corporate average fuel economy, better known as CAFE.

They cast their resistance as a fight to preserve an American tradition: consumer choice. Sure, they can offer the Ford Ka or the Chevy Spark in the United States.

But will Americans buy them?

"You can make any vehicle you want," said John M. McDonald, spokesman for General Motors. "If the American public doesn't buy it, you go out of business. It's real simple."

Consumer taste is the oft-ignored crucible where the success or failure of CAFE standards will be decided. That's because the federal government judges compliance not on what auto makers build, but on what American drivers buy.

Technically, the CAFE standard is "sales weighted." In layman's terms, that means the American love for trucks drags down the gains made by Prius-driving do-gooders.

"It ain't just the manufacturers that are the bad guys," said Dennis Simanaitis, engineering editor of Road & Track magazine. "It's us. We're the enemy. We're the ones who've been buying these things."

---

This year, trucks and SUVs account for 54 percent of new vehicles sold, said GM's McDonald. As for the much-vaunted trend toward smaller cars, McDonald offered this stark perspective: Yes, there's a slight downward trend in truck sales. Last year, they accounted for 55 percent.

Gas-sipping economy cars have grown in popularity, but industry-wide sales reached just 226,000 in the first seven months of this year, McDonald noted. By contrast, the Chevy Silverado, a full-size pickup, has sold 357,000.

"The CAFE argument isn't with the manufacturer," McDonald said. "It's with the American public."

If the American public loves trucks, Detroit has itself to blame. They've spent millions of dollars advertising pickups and SUVs, and created a market for trucks that is unique in the world.

But as Simanaitis points out, "No one held a gun to our heads and said buy an SUV."

While proponents of stricter CAFE standards want to save the world, the auto industry casts itself in the role of saving America. With conspicuous uniformity, industry lobbyists steer the debate from greenhouse gases to government intrusion, from suburban SUVs to the working man's pick-up truck.

By McDonald's numbers, GM sold more than a half-million of its full-size pickups in the first seven months. They also sold more than 640,000 SUVs.

Art Spath, general manager of Autoway Chevrolet in Tampa, said buyers still walk into the dealership set on SUVs. "The average home has 2.7 kids. They're saying, 'I have to take my kids to school, soccer, cheerleading. I carpool. I need the room.' "

George Pipas, a sales analyst for Ford, theorized that big - trucks, cars, everything - is an integral part of American heritage. Ford's F-series pickup has been the top-selling car in American for years, as opposed to GM's Opel Astra, which last year topped the European charts. It marks the fundamental difference between the United States and Europe, and it's why stringent CAFE rules aren't a good fit here, Pipas said.

"Americans want what Americans have always wanted since day one," Pipas said. "Bigger. Go west. More room."

In his calculus, the trucks on American roads aren't about the forces that shape what Americans buy. It's about who we are.

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The U.S. Congress and Senate will debate a raft of proposals to tighten CAFE standards when they reconvene next month. The differing benchmarks have spurred acrimonious lobbying on both sides.

A Senate bill passed in June calls for all trucks, cars and SUVs to average 35 mpg by 2020. The House is considering a similar measure, along with a competing bill that calls for 32 to 35 mpg by 2022, and sets a separate standard for light trucks.

Auto makers desperately want that separate standard, which has allowed the SUV market to flourish. This year, federal standards require light trucks to hit 22.2 mpg, while passenger cars must average 27.5-miles to the gallon.

The debate has made strange-bedfellows out of Detroit's "Big Three" and rival Toyota. Toyota gets good green press for its popular Prius, but the Japanese manufacturer still wants to see a profit from its Tundra pickup.

Simanaitis of Road & Track said a combined standard of 35 mpg will be a tough challenge for all car makers. Success will redefine the American roadway: smaller cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and a lighter model line sheared of some trucks.

Pipas of Ford said the American love of big has started to erode. Baby boomers are empty nesters and don't need the big car anymore. Their children - the "echo boomers" - respond to a different fashion. The pinnacle of SUV sales may well be behind us.

Americans might not be stampeding toward small cars yet, but some manufacturers are hedging their bets in case tastes become, well, a little more European. This fall, GM's popular Opel Astra, rechristened a Saturn, is expected to make its stateside debut.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at 813 225-3117 or aloder@sptimes.com">href="mailto:aloder@sptimes.com" mce_href="mailto:aloder@sptimes.com">aloder@sptimes.com

Gas-burning, by the numbers

9.4-billion: Number of gallons of gasoline Floridians will have burned in their vehicles in all of 2007.

Third: State ranking of Florida when it comes to gas consumption. (It is the fourth most populous state.)

15: Miles per gallon of Ford's F-series pickup, the best-selling vehicle in the country in 2006.

469,159: Number of Ford F-series pickups sold in the United States through July of this year.

34: Approximate mpg of the Opel Astra, a best-selling car in Europe in 2006.

21.65 : Approximate average mpg of the 10 best- selling vehicles in the United States in 2006

187,000: Number of hybrid vehicles sold in the United States in the first half of 2007.

256,000: Number of hybrid vehicles sold in the country in 2006.

46: Mpg achieved by a 2007 Prius.

110,565: Number of Toyota Prius hybrids sold through July.

15-17: Mpg achieved by a 2007 Toyota Tundra.

105,990: Number of Toyota Tundra pickups sold through July.

Sources: Consumer Federation of America, J.D. Power & Associates, Toyota, U.S. Department of Energy, Edmunds.com

[Last modified August 12, 2007, 02:28:44]


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