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Fuel Efficiency Not a Concern

October 11, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A slew of diesel Volkswagens, including the new Beetle and an old standby, the Chevy Metro, are leading the fuel misers of 1999. But with gasoline selling for $1 a gallon does anyone care?

Not in recent memory have Americans paid as little attention to fuel efficiency when shopping for cars and planning trips, say auto industry and travel experts.

In fact, gas-guzzling power machines such as the full-sized sport utility vehicles _ built on standard truck chassis_ are selling so fast that manufacturers can’t keep up. And auto makers are coming up with more models and more horsepower each year, while phasing out some smaller, more fuel-efficient sedans.

``People just don’t care about fuel efficiency anymore″ _ not when gasoline prices are the lowest they’ve been since 1992, even taking inflation into account, Dave VanSickle of the American Automobile Association said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in releasing its annual fuel economy statistics for 1999 model cars and trucks, singled out the Chevrolet Metro as the most fuel-efficient gasoline vehicle, getting 41 miles a gallon in the city and 47 mpg on highways.

The General Motors subcompact has been the mileage leader among gasoline cars nine of the last 10 years.

This year, three newly designed diesel-powered Volkswagens _ the popular revived Beetle, the Golf and the Jetta _ reported slightly better mileage than the Metro, at 42 mpg in city driving. Their gasoline-powered counterparts were further down the list (24 mpg in city driving for the gas-chugging Beetle).

As in past years, the biggest gas hogs are high-performance and luxury cars. The two-seater Ferrari 550 Maranello was the only car to get single-digit mileage _ 9 mpg in city driving _ making it the most voracious guzzler.

The EPA reported mileage figures _ based on manufacturers’ tests _ for 765 vehicles. Almost two-thirds were in the 20 mpg to 30 mpg range. About 18 percent reported mileage of better than 30 mpg, and an almost identical number got less than 20 mpg.

The fleet-wide fuel economy average for passenger sedans has been stuck for a decade at just under 28 mpg. But vehicles on the road are, in fact, burning more gasoline because a growing number of motorists now drive popular sport utility vehicles, small trucks and minivans _ generally less fuel-efficient.

This year, light trucks, which include SUVs and many minivans, grew to almost 48 percent of the new vehicle market, compared to about 25 percent a decade ago, according to industry analysts.

The most fuel-efficient 1999 sport utilities are two versions of the Chevrolet Tracker and three types of Suzuki Vitara, smaller versions that get 25 mpg in city driving, according to the EPA.

But auto makers have been making sport utilities bigger and bigger and have no trouble finding buyers. Some _ like Ford’s Expedition, Dodge’s Durango and the new Cadillac Escalade _ get only 12 mpg in city driving _ just a little better than some gas guzzling Ferraris.

``With gasoline prices continuing to be low, the market clearly is going to SUVs and larger vehicles,″ said General Motors spokesman Pat Morrissey. And manufacturers have been dropping some car models in favor of trucks, which have to meet less-stringent federal fuel economy requirements.

Customers certainly aren’t rushing to buy small cars.

The top 10 most fuel-efficient cars a year ago accounted for less than 1 percent of new cars sold, or about 43,000 vehicles, said the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, an advocacy group that opposes federal fuel-economy standards.

``The small econoboxes ... simply don’t meet the needs of most consumers, much less those with families and active lifestyles,″ said Diane Steed, the coalition’s president.

Good mileage doesn’t necessarily mean a minicompact, however. The Dodge Stratus, a midsize sedan, gets 37 mpg on the highway, the best in its category, and Saturn has a model that gets 40 mpg, the best in its category. But conservation advocates maintain that auto makers don’t promote gas efficiency in their advertising. Auto makers say they’re providing what customers want.

``It’s the customer who demands these (bigger) vehicles,″ said Jim Steiger of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

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