Gentlemen, reduce your engines.
Ford Motor Co. and General Motors have begun a new truck race - this one to see which giant can better reduce the fuel consumption of its sport-utilities.
The Sierra Club (Note: This is not a group of owners of large GMC pickups) and others have cited this as evidence the manufacturers have been hiding fuel-economy technology. Baloney.
But average ute economy will rise. That's because the automakers have caught on to a new trend driven by the consumer: the nontruck truck. As fast as they can develop them, Ford, GM and others will introduce vehicles that aren't really trucks. They'll only seem like trucks.
Yes, the automakers also will lop a couple of hundred pounds from Suburbans and Excursions to make marginal improvements in their fuel consumption, although the next generation Ford Explorer actually will be a couple of hundred pounds heavier. Ford is planning, at least, to improve the mileage of the traditional brute-utes, too.
The sport-utility defined the 1990s and rescued the domestic automakers. But in 2000, we're nearing the peak of truck-based sport-utilities.
A few years ago, I bumped into a Ford engineer whose family was climbing out of a brand-new Explorer at the pool.
'How do you like it?' I asked.
'We love it!' he said.
Then he added sheepishly: 'Well, it rides like a truck, it's kind of noisy, it's hard to climb into and out of, and it burns way too much gas. But we love it!'
Consumers want the utility of a truck, but not all those other attributes.
Another attribute, revealed in J.D. Power numbers, is sport-utilities have a lot more quality problems than vehicles in general.
Everybody knows baby boomers don't want station wagons, which remind them of their unhip parents. Kurt Ritter, the astute general marketing manager at Chevrolet, argues younger consumers are neutral on wagons because they have never seen any.
Well, the new sport-utility substitute will in essence be a station wagon that carries sport-utility attitude. Think Lexus RX 300 in all sizes and shapes.
How fast does this conversion happen? As fast as the automakers can catch up to the consumer.
Remember that a dozen years ago, the worldwide market for two-seaters was known to be dead. Then came the Mazda Miata, the BMW Z3, the Porsche Boxster, the Mercedes-Benz SLK and the Honda S2000, and 'demand' for two-seaters multiplied.
Great products merely unleashed the demand. The same thing will happen with great new ute-like vehicles.
Ford has introduced the Escape, which is in essence a passenger car that gets 28 mpg and soon will get a hybrid-electric powertrain. The Escape will do fine as is, but I think Ford would have done even better by making it look like a new kind of vehicle rather than a baby Explorer.
Meanwhile, love it or hate it, the Pontiac Aztek has the efficiency of a minivan and utility of a sport-utility, and GM has a whole generation of nontruck trucks waiting in the wings.
By entering those segments, GM and Ford are following the Japanese car-based sport-utilities. More are introduced each year and with higher sales.
Add a couple of those and - voila! - your average fuel-economy improves for your sport-utility fleet.
I don't want to overstate the prevalence of these new vehicles. Traditional, truck-based sport-utilities are still a massive segment, but their growth shows signs of leveling off as the nontruck trucks come on line.
The Autofacts unit of PricewaterhouseCoopers projects American production of 1.4 million of those nontrucks by 2004. That's about where all sport-utilities were six years ago. That's a lot.
The customer is leading the industry on this.
And on this social issue, the industry is trying to stay on the side of the angels - especially Bill Ford, Jac Nasser and Harry Pearce.
Newspapers, editorial cartoonists and TV comedians make jokes about hulking Excursions and Suburbans.
The great automotive fear: Someday, driving one of those big boys will become like smoking in an elevator.
But the nontruck truck will solve that problem.
Peter Brown's e-mail address is [email protected]