If the Environmental Protection Agency were an automobile dealer, it would have had to file for bankruptcy protection long ago. Every year, it produces a list of the nation's most fuel-efficient cars, and every year those cars become the nation's most expensive vacuum cleaners. All they do is collect dust.
Of the cars on the the 1998 model year list headed by the Chevrolet Metro, there were just 116,413 sold as of Aug. 31, 1998. The total number of 1998 cars sold by that date was 7,385,700. So EPA's car-buying guide amounted to exactly 1.6 percent of total car sales. Likewise the agency's list of the nation's most fuel-efficient light trucks in the 1998 model year generated sales of 42,796. Out of the 6,652,040 light trucks sold, that's a mighty 0.6 percent. As a percentage of total 1998 model year car and light-truck sales, EPA's most fuel-efficient cars amounted to just 0.8 percent, light trucks to 0.3 percent.
The list of 1999 model year gas sippers appears to be headed for white elephant sales levels too. Heading the list of fuel-efficient cars is once again the Metro, getting 41 mpg in the city and 47 on highways. Topping the list of mini trucks are two models of the Chevrolet Tracker. EPA put three versions of the Tracker on last year's list, all of which combined for sales of less than 14,000.
Even if such vehicles did generate more sales, the best the car companies may be able to hope for is to lose less money. The compact Ford Escort gets relatively good gas mileage, for example. Reports the Wall Street Journal, "The car is cheap, and Ford has sold many of them, but it is a money loser, kept around mostly for its contribution to federally regulated corporate fuel economy standards." Moreover, government pressure to produce money losers has the ironic effect of forcing companies to come up with bigger, more profitable cars -- many of them less fuel efficient -- to offset the losses.
Why does the government continue to hamstring U.S. car makers and their employees by forcing them to make cars no one wants? The original reason was the energy crisis of the 1970s. At a time of skyrocketing gas prices and rationing, the government decided to pressure consumers into driving vehicles that required less fuel, something that consumers had already figured out on their own.
Alas for the car controllers, Ronald Reagan came along to decontrol oil and gas prices, and the energy crisis came to an abrupt halt. Consumer obsession on fuel-efficiency ended too. Short of bringing back another energy crisis, the small-car lobby had to figure another reason to keep consumers in them.
From energy crisis to ecological crisis: The feds decided that the environment would be better off if fuel-efficient cars stayed on the road because they would use less gas and produce less pollution. Never mind that consumers might find a more fuelish car an incentive to drive even more than before.
But Americans decided they were more interested in using bigger, more comfortable cars than they were in saving gas money. They wanted air conditioning, automatic transmissions, four-wheel drive, antilock brakes and towing capability, all of which hamper fuel economy. They also wanted the safety that comes of driving in a bigger vehicle; no blood for oil for them.
Is the environment the worse for their decision? No. All new cars and trucks have had to meet stringent federal emission standards that make them 97 percent cleaner than their counterparts three decades ago.
Are Americans guzzling gas they way they once did? No again. Says former National Highway Traffic Safety administrator Dianne Steed, "The hidden story behind the release of EPA's 'top ten' is that even those consumers who value fuel economy need not compromise their safety and comfort. Most new cars sold today achieve remarkable fuel economy levels that were unheard of when the term 'gas guzzler' was coined. For example, a 1998 four-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee sport utility vehicle, Cadillac DeVille and Ford Taurus station wagon all get better mileage than a 1978 Toyota Corona subcompact car. Virtually all minivans today that can carry a soccer team and all its gear get better fuel economy than the old Volkswagen beetle."
EPA can dream of the good old days of the gasoline crunch and pray for their return. Until that day, the agency is just going to have to accommodate itself to the improved environmental, safety and fuel efficiency of American's most, not least, wanted vehicles.
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