SAN JOSE, Calif. - With gasoline prices putting a squeeze on happy motoring, people are once again talking about fuel economy.
In July, Ford Motor Co. said it would improve the fuel mileage of its sport utility vehicles by 25 percent, or about 5 miles per gallon, by 2005. General Motors Corp. said it would match Ford to remain the "leader" in light-truck fuel-economy.
Both companies have said they would use trucks as the platform for hybrid gas-electric vehicles to be released later in the decade, Ford with its small Escape SUV and GM with its full-size pickups.
Yet, while both companies said market research shows a growing appetite for improved fuel economy, motorists haven't slowed their purchases of gas-guzzling luxury cars, trucks and SUVs.
"In the normal marketplace, like the one we've got today where fuel economy has not been a factor, most vehicles that have higher fuel economy have traded off some other attribute," said John DeCicco, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in Washington.
In many cases, the most fuel-efficient vehicle in a vehicle class might have a four- or six-cylinder engine whereas the bestsellers in the class have six or eight cylinders, DeCicco said.
"They're almost bound to be low sellers by definition," he said. But, he noted, Ford and GM have pledged to make fuel-efficiency advances in mainstream vehicles configured to appeal to the public without losing performance.
And if automakers could focus on engine efficiency rather than competing in a "mindless horsepower war," improvements could come quickly, DeCicco said.
"I think we're seeing a situation where it's like, 'Gentlemen, start your engines. We've got a new race under way,'" DeCicco said.
Jason Mark, transportation co-director for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, Calif., sees the news from Ford and GM as "signaling a sea change in their thinking on marketing."
"The competition no longer will be on size and power exclusively," Mark said. "Fuel economy now is in the mix."
Since the oil crisis subsided 25 years ago, interest in fuel economy has waned. Back then, sales of smaller import cars blossomed and those of large American cars faded.
But, over the years, domestic and foreign automakers moved to sell a wider range of vehicles from economy sedans to luxury cars and all manner of trucks, minivans and sport utilities.
As less-fuel-efficient vehicles have become transportation staples, sales of the smallest cars have dropped significantly. And sales of cars such as the Chevy Cavalier, Ford Escort, Toyota Corolla and Saturn S accounted for 1.5 million sales last year, down from 1.9 million in 1990.
In 1999, minivan sales rose 9.6 percent, sales of large pickups rose 11.7 percent, sales of midsize sport utilities climbed 12.0 percent and sales of small SUVs surged 38.3 percent.