WASHINGTON - The EPA wants to create a system for rating each new car and light truck for its impact on the environment.
The ratings could be ready early in 2001, the agency said. The EPA likely would award one to five stars, based on combined evaluations of fuel economy and tailpipe emissions.
The agency was inspired by the crash-test scores the government gives to vehicles. A similar plan soon will be used to rate vehicle rollover tendencies.
In some ways the automakers fostered the proliferation of ratings.
The fact that some vehicle companies advertise heavily when their products do well in crash tests is encouraging the EPA to develop environmental grades, said Margo Oge, director of the agency's Office of Transportation and Air Quality.
If automakers also advertise good environmental scores, more car and light-truck buyers might choose cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles, she said.
The EPA has issued fuel-economy data for 25 years. In October, it began to convert highly complex tailpipe emission information into a form consumers can grasp. With little fanfare, the EPA began making those numbers available in its Vehicle Emissions Guide on the Internet at www.epa.gov/autoemissions.
Despite its low-key launch, the site has recorded more than 1 million visits, said Office of Transportation and Air Quality spokeswoman Marion Herz.
Although the EPA is proceeding with the plan, the new administration of President-elect George W. Bush could reverse the course.
Greg Dana, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said carmakers generally don't oppose the EPA's attempt to repackage existing data in a 'slightly more consumer-friendly format.'
But the alliance objects to the EPA's plan to merge the new emissions numbers with long-available fuel economy ratings into some kind of single score. 'That would be too complicated.' Dana said.
While the emissions data fall short of an overall environmental rating, they mark a significant addition to the broad array of information available to vehicle shoppers.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner hailed the Vehicle Emissions Guide as a tool for Americans 'to help protect their health and their environment through wise consumer choices.'
But the conversion of highly technical material into a consumer-friendly package has created some unexpected - and possibly misleading - results.
For example, the hybrid-powered, gasoline-electric Honda Insight, when sold outside California, gets the same score as a Lincoln Town Car and a Mercedes-Benz SL500.
And despite Ford Motor Co.'s claims about making its light trucks cleaner than the law requires, only one of its models stood above competitors in any light-truck category: an F-150 pickup fueled by natural gas.
'Anyone who thinks the Honda Insight and the Lincoln Town Car have the same impact on the environment is not very realistic,' said Art Garner, spokesman for American Honda Motor Co.
Making the Insight's gasoline engine run lean for high fuel economy raises emissions, especially of hydrocarbons, to greater levels than might otherwise be expected.
Ford spokeswoman Ellen Dickson said her company was disappointed that its efforts to make light trucks cleaner than required didn't register in the EPA ratings. But Ford favors dissemination of the emissions data and understands the agency's Web site is a work in progress, she said.
What about warming?
In the EPA emissions rankings, each vehicle gets a score of 0 to 10, depending on the amounts of hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen coming out of its tailpipe. The two groups of compounds - though not the only vehicle pollutants - get much of the blame for health-damaging urban smog.
On the EPA's scale, zero is the worst score, earned by certain versions of the Chevrolet Suburban, Dodge Ram, Ford E-150 and Toyota Sequoia, to name a few. A 10 is best, given only to California versions of the Honda Accord, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Prius.
Jim Kliesch, co-author of an annual publication called ACEEE's Green Book, said the EPA's attempt to familiarize the public with emissions data is an important step forward. But Kliesch, transportation analyst at the nonprofit group American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said the effort falls short because:
It does not include all the dangerous pollutants, such as small particles and carbon monoxide.
The data is 'coarse,' lumping dissimilar vehicles together with the same scores.
It does not tell people about vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide, a normally harmless gas that many scientists say contributes to global warming.
Kliesch's Green Book gives overall environmental ratings to cars and light trucks.
Elsewhere, a company has started a Web site, www.amesaward.com, that lists the most 'environmentally sensitive' vehicles in each class.