WASHINGTON -- America's love affair with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and pickups is keeping national fuel economy at a 20-year low, the government says.
With automakers focusing on the bigger, more powerful vehicles, the Environmental Protection Agency found that average gasoline mileage for 2000 model year passenger vehicles was 24 miles per gallon, the same as last year and the lowest since 1980. The figure had climbed to 25.9 mpg in 1987 and 1988.
The drop in fuel economy corresponds to a surge in sales of "light trucks," which include vans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. Those now account for 46 percent of all U.S. passenger vehicle sales.
Light trucks tend to weigh more than cars and get fewer miles to the gallon. The average 2000 car gets 28.1 mpg, while light trucks get 20.5 mpg.
"Consumers want cars that have certain performance features," said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers that lobbies on behalf of 13 automakers. "We sell cars that get 40 miles per gallon, but fewer than 2 percent of consumers buy them."
But Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program, said Tuesday that automakers spend much of their huge advertising budgets pushing lower-mileage SUVs because they are so profitable.
"They have found that the American public will buy a large pile of steel with plush seats and cup holders, despite the fact that they will guzzle gas, pollute the air and roll over and kill people," he said.
Better gas mileage would reduce oil consumption, lower fuel costs and lower carbon dioxide emissions, he said. Passenger vehicles discharge about 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.
The federal government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, adopted in 1975 to boost fuel economy, require each automaker to reach a 27.5 mpg average fuel economy on new passenger cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks. The automakers do not have reach the standard for each vehicle, but their entire fleet must meet the average.
Critics say the standards are too low, but since 1996 the auto industry has successfully lobbied Congress to block the Clinton administration from even studying a possible increase.
The EPA report, published last week, said new technologies are on the market that could increase fuel economy, but automakers instead have focused on building heavier vehicles and increasing acceleration. Vehicles that are heavier or have higher horsepower need more gas to operate, making it difficult to lower fuel economy even when new technologies emerge.
The average fuel economy for 1981 vehicles was 24.1 mpg -- slightly higher than model year 2000. But if the 2000 fleet had the same average weight and performance as in 1981 with today's technologies, it could have achieved 25 percent higher fuel economy, according to the report. That would have saved more than 10 billion gallons of gasoline per year, according to EPA officials.
The weight of cars and light trucks increased 10 percent and 16 percent, respectively, since 1981. Today's cars can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 10.3 seconds, on average, down from 14.4 seconds in 1981. Average 0-to-60 acceleration for light trucks has moved from 14.6 seconds to 11.0 seconds.
Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG have been working with the federal government since 1993 to develop higher-mileage vehicles in a program called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.
Under that program, the Clinton-Gore administration challenged automakers to develop by 2004 production prototypes of a family size sedan that would get at least 80 miles per gallon. All three automakers have produced concept cars that at least come close to reaching the goal and are using the technology to develop production vehicles with better gas mileage.
Ford announced last summer that it would increase the fuel economy of its SUV fleet by 25 percent by the 2005 model year. GM responded by pledging to keep the fuel economy of its light truck fleet better than Ford's.
The report said if all the automakers increased their passenger vehicle fleets' gas mileage by 25 percent in five years, average fuel economy would increase to 30 mpg.
On the Net:
To see the EPA report: http://www.epa.gov/otaq/fetrends.htm
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers: http://www.autoalliance.org
Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org
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