Car culture is more than glistening sheet metal and roaring engines. It's also politics. Consider the matter of fuel economy.
You'd think that with regular unleaded gasoline prices topping $2 a gallon in the United States, both government and automotive industry officials would be hard at work developing practical, workable solutions to reduce fuel consumption.
You'd think that companies such as General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG -- all of which do a splendid job of selling snazzy, fuel-efficient little cars overseas -- now would jump at the opportunity to sell many of those same models in America.
Most certainly, you'd think that stalwart environmental groups such as the Sierra Club would support such a move.
You'd better think again.
The same GM that sells economical but zippy Opel Astra cars and wagons in Germany is reluctant to ship them to the United States primarily because it does not want to get into trouble with the United Auto Workers union.
U.S. automotive executives, of course, never come right out and say that. They offer other seemingly plausible reasons for keeping their hot little runners in Europe. They argue that Americans, even with rising fuel prices, don't really like small cars -- the success of models such as the Mini Cooper, Mazda3 and Toyota Prius notwithstanding.
The executives also point to "unfavorable currency exchange rates." Put another way, building and shipping cars in strong euros and selling them in weak dollars is not a recipe for profitability -- especially not in a U.S. market where many consumers equate small cars with low prices, which means they would be reluctant to pay extra money to make up the dollar-euro deficit.
But if you listen carefully to the corporate demurrals, you'll hear something else. "We have a partnership with the UAW, and we have to work with them," G. Richard Wagoner Jr., GM's chairman and chief executive officer, said in a recent interview in St. Tropez, France.
To better understand that politesse, you may want pull from the archives an Op-Ed column that appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 18. The piece, co-authored by UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, attacked a Bush administration proposal to base federal fuel-economy standards on vehicle weight and type.
That proposal, still nascent, effectively would set up different fuel-economy standards for different vehicle categories -- a radical turnabout from the current broad-brush approach of setting one overall standard for "trucks" and another for "cars."
Under that current "corporate average" fuel economy (CAFE) standard, car companies are forbidden from using their foreign fleets to get a better overall fuel economy rating. For example, cars sold as imports cannot be counted for CAFE fleet-averaging reasons with those sold as domestics. They must be counted separately.
The effect of the current CAFE rule, Gettelfinger and Pope said in their editorial, "has been to keep good jobs in America."
"Without a fleet-wide standard, the auto companies would be free to shift the production of smaller, less profitable vehicles from the United States to overseas."
Put another way, the UAW does not make many of those small, fuel-efficient cars. It makes bigger, less-fuel-efficient pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles, which brings up another point. In the matter of SUVs, whose sale I support as long as consumers are willing to pay for them, the UAW and Sierra Club have been at loggerheads. The Sierra Club routinely campaigns for the demise of SUVs. The UAW protests, citing freedom of choice in the marketplace and job protection for the thousands of Americans who make a living selling and servicing SUVs.
Also, there's this: Tens of thousands of small, fuel-efficient cars are assembled every year in the United States. But those cars are assembled by Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., all of which the UAW, so far, has failed to organize. That's interesting, because while the UAW warns about the possible loss of American jobs to overseas markets, it generally says nothing about the nearly 70,000 largely nonunion jobs directly provided by foreign car manufacturers doing business in the United States.
Another curious point: In the February opinion piece, Gettelfinger and Pope argued that the Bush administration's vehicle-weight and -type approach to fuel-economy regulation would result in a "reduction in overall fuel economy and an increase in pollution."
That contention boggles my mind.
Here is the UAW, still thriving on the sales of big trucks, arguing that a potential increase in the sale of imported small cars in the United States would lead to more pollution. Here is the Sierra Club, which in the past has argued for the increased sales of smaller, more economical vehicles, championing the UAW's stand against increased sales of small-car imports.
The car companies say they are studying the Bush proposal, now under review at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In the interim, gasoline prices continue to rise. Some American consumers are beginning to shy away from the pickup trucks and SUVs built by the UAW. And European car buyers, beset by petroleum prices that are now nearly four times the equivalent dollar-price-per-gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in the United States, are driving some of the best, safest, most imaginative small cars ever made.