Fuel economy remains a hard sell

WASHINGTON - Two new reports from the federal government highlight a dilemma facing automakers: They are offering more fuel-efficient vehicles, but consumers keep favoring bigger size and more performance.

The dilemma is all the more urgent because the federal government is ready to raise corporate average fuel economy standards, or CAFE.

The government's Fuel Economy Guide for 2002, with mileage ratings for each vehicle, was made public Tuesday, Oct. 9. It shows there now are 10 cars that get at least 45 mpg on the highway.

Three gasoline-electric hybrids finished No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 in the rankings. They are the Honda Insight with a manual transmission (61 mpg city/68 highway), an Insight with an automatic (57/56) and the Toyota Prius (52/45). Other Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen models round out the top 10.

The least economical are two versions of the Lamborghini L-147 Murcielago (9/13), the Ferrari 360 Modena with an automatic (10/16) and the Dodge Ram 1500 with four-wheel drive (11/15).

The guide is available at www.fueleconomy.gov.

It was released fast on the heels of an EPA report showing that all of the cars and light trucks sold in the 2001 model year averaged an estimated 20.4 mpg, the lowest figure since 1980.

The EPA again blamed the increasing popularity of light trucks and the growing weight and horsepower of new vehicles for the decline in fleet fuel efficiency. The report is at www.epa.gov/otaq/fetrends.htm.

"The consumer is in the driver's seat," said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing 13 car companies.

Bergquist, reiterating an alliance position in CAFE debates, said automakers produce about 50 models that get at least 30 mpg, but most are weak sellers.

Nevertheless, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is prepared to make a study that could lead to higher CAFE standards by the 2004 model year. The standards are 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 for trucks.

A six-year freeze on NHTSA's consideration of CAFE increases will be lifted as soon as Congress and President Bush enact a transportation spending bill for the 2002 federal fiscal year.

The freeze was to expire Sept. 30 with the end of the old fiscal year, but it has been extended while Congress wrestles with other issues.

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