How Detroit is slowly moving the needle on fuel economy

Detroit automakers openly boast these days how better prepared they are to cope with rising gasoline prices.

Management has vowed not to relive 2008, when record pump prices convinced legions of Americans to give up their Tahoes, Commanders and Navigators for good. Carmakers have shed brands such as Hummer, embraced hybrids and reintroduced compact cars like the Fiesta.

And there is evidence out today that Detroit is gaining some traction in the ring of public opinion.

Just over one in five American adults now think Detroit is moving as quickly as possible to build vehicles that consume less gasoline, up from just 9 percent in 2006, according to a survey of 2,184 adults in mid-May by Harris Interactive.

Yet in a sign of how much the spike in gas prices has frustrated the public, just over half of U.S. adults say American auto companies still aren't moving as quickly as they should to build cars that consume less gasoline. Another 23 percent aren't sure whether Detroit is moving fast enough or not.

It's a large shift from 2006, when three-quarters of U.S. adults said American car companies weren't moving fast enough to improve fuel economy.

But perceptions haven't changed much since 1979, when a third of Americans felt U.S. automakers were moving as quickly as they could to build cars that consume less gasoline while 60 percent felt they were not.

Credit a White House with an aggressive green agenda, enlightened management or the stark realities of the marketplace and shifting consumer preferences, but it seems a window of opportunity is indeed finally cracking open for Detroit.

Since the first oil shocks in the 1970s, Japanese automakers have enjoyed an edge over their U.S. rivals when it comes to public perceptions about who builds more fuel-efficient models.

Credit all those new silver Volts and lime squeeze metallic Fiestas for finally moving the needle in favor of Detroit.

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