COMMENT: Even as oil costs rise, horsepower trumps ecology

Franz W. Rother is Editor-in-Chief of Automobilwoche

For weeks, representatives of the industrialized nations begged and prayed.

In the end, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries came around.

Starting next month, OPEC members will increase daily oil production by a half-million barrels to ease price pressures and give the world economy a little air.

Instead of 28 million barrels of oil (each with a 159-liter, or 42-gallon, capacity), oil wells in Nigeria, off the coast of Venezuela and in the Arabian desert will soon be filling 28.5 million barrels a day with the precious fossil fuel and shipping it across the globe for consumption. A lot of it will run internal combustion engines.

Given the energy appetites of upwardly mobile countries such as China and India, it's not hard to see that this is just a drop in the bucket.

So German drivers shouldn't waste time hoping for falling diesel and gasoline prices. On the contrary, with the euro's weakness and the start of the vacation travel season, prices will soon be at record levels.

So it's more than regrettable that Volkswagen will stop building the 3.0-liter Lupo at month's end.

The company already had said it has stopped work on the 1.0-liter vehicle that Ferdinand Piech, then the VW chairman, proudly rolled out at the firm's shareholder meeting in 2002.

The company can hardly be blamed. Cars have to justify themselves on economic grounds, whether it is a 3.0-liter Lupo or a Golf. When a high-tech, high-fuel-economy car can find only 30,000 buyers worldwide, and the company is throwing good money after bad on each vehicle, a project like this has to stop.

Certainly, VW could have marketed it more aggressively. But the real problem is that, unlike the situation of seven years ago, the eco-car no longer has a lobby in Germany.

With the Lupo's demise, the Audi A2 diesel inherits the fuel-economy crown.

But its production also ends in just a few weeks.

Alternatives are few. The Toyota Prius is the No. 1 environmentally friendly vehicle according to the consumer group VerkehrsClub Deutschland. It consumes an average of 4.5 liters of gasoline per 100km (1.2 gallons per 62.1 miles). That's premium, mind you.

The diesel Smart ForTwo burns just 3.4 liters per 100km (nearly one gallon per 62.1 miles). But it only has room for two people and a gasoline can.

The European industry's arms race is unfortunately heading in another direction.

Audi has just introduced the world's most powerful diesel (with 326 hp) in its top-of-the-line A8. And Bugatti will soon deliver its first cars with 1,001 hp.

The oil industry is rubbing its hands contentedly. It points to recoverable oil reserves of 173 billion tons worldwide. From a purely mathematical standpoint, the oil age should last about 45.5 more years, based on global consumption of 3.8 billion tons a year.

That would leave enough time to develop alternative, hydrogen-based powertrains. But that's only true if world energy demand remains constant and OPEC oil wells in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere remain accessible.

The geopolitical situation can change quickly. Then the know-how to exploit oil deposits 4,000 meters down will be of little use.

Rising crude oil prices should be the trigger for an innovation offensive.

At the end of it, there should be new fuel-efficient cars, with diesels, hybrids or even combinations of both.

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