Deja Vu in the Dinosaur Business


Washington -- When the great gasoline crunch of 1974 was upon us, there was an outcry for more efficient automobiles. When Congress wanted to mandate more miles per gallon for American cars, high-powered executives from Detroit said it couldn't be done, couldn't be done.

And then it was done.

Now there is yet another round of debate over whether U.S.-built autos should get more m.p.g., and the industry has mounted a vast lobbying campaign against any such legislation. The car makers say it can't, and furthermore shouldn't, be done.

And once again, it's being done -- not by Detroit, but by the Japanese.

Just as Honda's Civic and other foreign cars showed American manufacturers almost two decades ago that drastically better mileage was possible in a production model, Honda is now coming out with a Civic VX that gets 55 m.p.g. on the road.

Not only that, but the new Honda has more horsepower and room than many other cars that get fewer miles per gallon. Thus it strikes directly at the core of Detroit's current argument -- that more efficient cars are inevitably less powerful and more dangerous.

When U.S. makers fought federal mileage standards in the Seventies, they started by saying they couldn't build high-m.p.g. cars. When that was proved preposterous because Japanese and German companies were flooding this country with just such machines, Detroit tried several fall-back arguments.

Americans wouldn't buy small cars, Detroit said. Yet those imports were selling faster every year. Americans don't consider m.p.g. when they buy, Detroit said. But Detroit was not trying to sell m.p.g.; all its ads emphasized size, power, luxury and style, because that's where the profits are.

After struggling against the federally imposed fleet average of 27.5 m.p.g., Detroit grudgingly moved in that direction, dragging its feet all the way. But gradually it shifted the mix of its new cars back toward bigger, more profitable models.

Then along came new Middle East crises, the Valdez oil spill and other clear reminders of why the nation should cut its addiction to oil. There were moves in Congress to boost federal m.p.g. standards.

The bill drawing most attention is from Sen. Richard Bryan, who would require a 40 percent increase in fuel-economy standards in the next 10 years.

So far, it hasn't passed, but it hasn't gone away, either. The auto industry has formed a new lobbying outfit called Citizens for Vehicle Choice, which is spending heavily to defeat the bill.

The oil industry and the Bush administration, which for this purpose are the same thing, also oppose higher m.p.g. requirements, for the obvious reason that more gallons mean more profits. Instead of boosting gas mileage, they want to open Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Backers of the Bryan bill point out that there is only a minor chance that the refuge contains commercial amounts of oil; that if the oil is there, tapping it would risk more spills like that from the Exxon Valdez, and that higher m.p.g. standards would save more oil than the new Alaskan field would produce over its lifetime. Not only that, but the less gasoline we burn, the less air pollution we create.

The administration doesn't want to hear all that, just as Mr. Bush didn't want to hear suggestions that he dock his gas-guzzling speedboat at Kennebunkport during the recent war over Persian Gulf oil.

Neither, however, does the administration want to hear more bad news about the country's foreign trade balance -- the statistics that show many more foreign products sold here than U.S. products sold abroad.

And by coincidence, on the day the latest report showed a sharp July increase in the trade deficit, the news broke about the new Honda with its gas-sipping engine.

While American trade representatives keep trying to talk the Japanese into welcoming exports from this country, Japanese industries keep making products that more Americans want to buy. The trade deficit and the m.p.g. argument are closely linked, though neither Detroit nor the administration wants to admit it.

Dinosaurs have been dead longer than Elvis, but people are still trying to make a buck off both of them.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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