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Automakers Tout Hybrids, but Power Rules Showrooms

By Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page A01

General Motors Corp., which sells the gas-gobbling Hummer, urges Americans to "Get Green" on a special Web site and is producing advertising campaigns trumpeting hydrogen fuel and gas-electric hybrid vehicles.

Ford Motor Co., with the poorest average fuel economy of any major automaker, markets its new hybrid sport-utility vehicle in Mother Jones and other politically left magazines and has planted energy-saving grass on the roof of its newest truck plant.


Ford Motor Co. plans to build 20,000 Escape hybrid SUVs, but will sell nearly 10 times as many ordinary Escapes, which get half the gas mileage. (Jim Sulley -- AP)

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After years of pushing power and performance, the U.S. auto industry has begun to view conservation as a marketable quality. But the companies are stepping cautiously, and so far, the green marketing is far outpacing the manufacturing of energy-efficient vehicles.

Environmental activists say they are encouraged, if not yet convinced. "The carmakers are definitely talking the environmental line a lot more," said Jennifer Krill of the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco. While such marketing is "a sign of optimism," she said, "we still don't see the environmental products coming off the assembly line."

And for all the talk of change, the U.S. market continues to be dominated by power and style. The Chrysler Group has made far less noise about its green technologies, which include small electric "neighborhood vehicles" as well as super-efficient diesel engines. But Chrysler is also the only one of the Big Three automakers to gain market share over the past few months, thanks to its powerful "hemi" engines, racy Dodge Magnum wagon and big-grille 300 sedan.

Still, Detroit is moving to respond to the success of Toyota's popular Prius hybrid and the realization that higher gasoline prices are here to stay. The automakers believe Americans finally seem willing to pay for alternative technologies that have long been confined to the laboratory or test track.

In its push, GM has gone nationwide with ads for two new hybrid pickup trucks. But the modified Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra are available in only a few markets in Florida and western states, and the company expects to sell a mere 1,500 in the coming year, said Kenneth C. Stewart, marketing director for new ventures. What's more, the trucks are only "mild" hybrids: they do not have electric drive trains, and their batteries extend gas mileage by only about 10 percent.

Ford is building about 20,000 of its new Escape hybrid SUVs in the coming year, while demand is far higher. At the same time, Ford will sell nearly 10 times as many ordinary Escapes, which get half the gas mileage. The company's overwhelming reliance on truck sales helps drag its overall fuel economy rating below that of any other major automaker, to 18.8 miles per gallon last year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some environmental groups consider William Clay Ford Jr., Ford's chief executive, to be the executive most likely to push for change at the company. Environment-friendly marketing "is an outstanding business opportunity that ultimately will give us a competitive advantage," Ford said in a recent speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

It was his initiative to convert an aging truck plant in Dearborn, Mich., into a model of green manufacturing, with a grass roof and other innovations to cut energy use and pollution. "Being green is also saving us money," Ford said at the recent Chamber speech. He also proclaimed that "I believe the 100-year reign of the gas-powered internal combustion engine will come to an end within our lifetime."


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