The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday issued its annual winners list of fuel-efficient cars and trucks--but most of the winners are losers in the marketplace.
On the car side, the bulk of the EPA's high-mileage rollers, those getting at least 40 miles per gallon, are what industry analysts call "entry compacts." Some, such as the 1.9-liter, four-cylinder Volkswagen Golf, are diesel-powered.
As a group, according to 1998 and 1999 figures compiled by J.D. Power and Associates, a global market research firm headquartered in Agoura Hills, Calif., the most fuel-efficient cars constitute a scant 0.57 percent of the U.S. market.
On the other hand, many of the least fuel-efficient vehicles on the EPA's list are light trucks--pickups, minivans and, particularly, sport-utility vehicles--that are the hottest sellers. Power analysts say those models account for 48.08 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States, up from 47.31 percent in 1998. Indeed, many analysts expect light trucks and their derivatives to reach a 50 percent market share next year.
There are two high-mileage, compact pickup trucks on the EPA's list, both Ford Rangers. They are battery-powered, one with advanced lead-acid batteries and another with nickel metal hydride batteries. The lead-acid Ranger gets the equivalent of 83 mpg. The nickel-metal Ranger gets an 80 mpg equivalent. But most of those trucks, which are roughly double the price of their gasoline-powered counterparts, are sold to fleet buyers instead of retail customers.
There are no traditional full-size or mid-size cars or trucks on the EPA's list that get above 40 mpg, according to information on the agency's fuel-economy Web site, www.fueleconomy.gov. There are no sport-utility vehicles or small, gasoline-powered pickups in that category, either. Yet all available national sales numbers say big and mid-size trucks and cars are what Americans are buying.
That glaring discrepancy proves that fuel economy alone does not, and probably cannot, influence the U.S. consumer, said Diane K. Steed, president of the Washington-based Coalition for Vehicle Choice, a group lobbying for the auto industry on fuel economy and other regulatory matters.
"The small 'gas-sippers' on the EPA's . . . list simply don't meet the needs of most consumers, particularly those with families and active lifestyles," Steed said.
The EPA, however, is hoping that will change.
Heading its list of 2000-model vehicles getting the best fuel economy is the Honda Insight, a two-seat hybrid coupe powered by a combination of gasoline and electricity. It reportedly gets 61 miles per gallon in the city and 70 mpg on the highway.
The Insight is not yet on sale here--it will reach Honda's U.S. dealers in December, at what is expected to be an introductory price of $20,000. That means the company is willing to lose money at first to help build a market, some analysts contend.
That would not be a new strategy.
General Motors Corp. has been subsidizing consumer leases of its all-electric EV1 two-seater on the West Coast, and Toyota Motor Corp. has been swallowing an estimated $17,000 on each sale of its Prius hybrid model in Japan.
Toyota expects to bring the Prius to America within a year.
Environmental officials are counting on hybrids such as the Insight and Prius to restore some marketable, emotional appeal to the small-car group.
"Choosing the most fuel-efficient vehicles within a class can save drivers at least $1,500 in fuel costs and avoid more than 15 tons of greenhouse gas pollution over the life of the vehicle, as well as help reduce dependence on foreign oil," EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner said.
Advertising for automobiles emphasizes other qualities, of course. "Power. Sophistication. Smoothness," as an ad in Automobile Magazine promises. "Infiniti. Own One And You'll Understand."