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Not guzzling but still thirsty

The Baltimore Sun

With gas prices headed for record highs, Roy Berkeridge thought about swapping his pickup for a more fuel-efficient car. But instead, the 52-year-old Halethorpe resident recently decided to lease a new Ford Edge -- an SUV that gets slightly better gas mileage than a truck but is still roomy and hefty.

"I like the nice sturdy, heavy vehicles," said Berkeridge. "I don't really like small compact cars. I just don't feel secure in them. I like to feel armor around me for protection."

A new federal fuel-efficiency law is designed to make sure that motorists like Berkeridge can continue to buy the SUVs they prefer -- and that Detroit can continue to make them.

The law, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last month, will require new vehicles sold in the U.S. to get better mileage starting in 2011 and, by 2020, to be 40 percent more efficient than today on average.

But even though smaller, lighter vehicles get better gas mileage, the legislation doesn't require reductions in size. Big vehicles will become more efficient mostly through the installation of more frugal engines, rather than any loss of size or weight.

And big trucks won't have to meet the same miles-per-gallon limit as smaller vehicles. The new law creates a sliding scale of fuel efficiency requirements, with big SUVs having easier targets than smaller SUVs and big cars having lower standards than small cars.

Because American carmakers tend to make larger and heavier vehicles, Detroit's "Big Three" of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler will have to meet an average of 33 miles per gallon by 2020 under the new law, while their foreign competitors will be held to an average of 38 mpg, according to an analysis by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

This aspect of the law -- the first time Congress increased fuel efficiency standards in more than three decades -- was seen as a necessary concession to the U.S. auto industry to preserve jobs.

"The added flexibility makes the whole program less burdensome for industry, and it's good for the automakers who are dependent on the big SUVs," said Deron Lovaas, who worked on behalf of the bill for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

Other concessions to Detroit include a provision that returns to manufacturers some of the fines paid by carmakers that don't comply with the law to help improve their plants, Lovaas said.

Scott Gerber, spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation, said the bill was a good compromise. "People will still have their choice of vehicles, but they will all have better fuel economy," he said.

Experts predict that gas prices in urban areas could approach $4 a gallon this year, largely because of a shortage of an additive called alkylate.

"Clean cars" laws recently passed by Maryland and more than a dozen other states to cut greenhouse gas pollution would require greater fuel efficiency than the new federal standards, and are less protective of large SUV's and trucks. But these state laws have been blocked by the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency, leading Maryland and the other states to file lawsuits.

Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, an advocacy group, said the federal law's more lenient approach to gas guzzlers is a good reason to allow the states to act on their own. "What you don't want is an incentive to make and market larger vehicles," Heavner said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta praised big vehicles as good for the economy and "our way of life" during a speech. "Our new standards will encourage automakers to use cutting-edge fuel-saving technology instead of making weaker, lighter vehicles that put passengers at risk during crashes," Mineta said, echoing an argument made by the auto industry.

But a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that reducing the weight and size of SUVs and pickup trucks would actually improve safety for drivers hit by these big vehicles.

"There is absolutely no connection between fuel economy and safety," said David Friedman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Reducing weight can actually improve safety."

Some drivers are surprised that the new law doesn't even attempt to reverse a trend in America over the last two decades toward ever larger vehicles. Light trucks -- defined as pickups, SUVs and other bigger vehicles -- grew from 10 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. in 1979 to 53 percent in 2004. Sales of the big vehicles have since crept down to about 50 percent.

"Why can't the American companies do what the Japanese companies do?" said Lori Lynch, 52, a clerk from Rising Sun who recently traded in her beefy American-made SUV -- a GMC Envoy -- and bought a Honda Civic. "I really don't think that many people are interested in big vehicles anymore."

Andrew Schweigman, a salesman at Bob Davidson Ford Lincoln Mercury in Baltimore County, said it makes sense that the federal law allows people to keep buying the bigger vehicles they want.

He and other Maryland dealers said many customers these days are heading toward "crossover" SUVs like the Ford Edge and the Honda CRV, which get slightly better gas mileage than big SUVs. Crossovers have the engines and frames of cars but are as high off the road and as roomy as sport-utility vehicles.

"People are used to sitting up higher, and they don't feel comfortable in a small car," said Schweigman.

The Ford Edge gets about 24 mpg on highways, and the Honda CRV gets about 26 mpg. Those numbers will have to rise by more than a third under the new federal law.

Under the law, weight-based definitions of cars and "light trucks" used since the 1970s will be thrown out. A new curve of fuel efficiency requirements based on a vehicle's "footprint" -- how many square feet of road it occupies. The sliding scale, which the administration started using this year for some trucks, will have many increments, ranging from about 45 mpg for cars to 25 mpg for trucks.

Phyllis Cuttino, a fuel efficiency expert at the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, said the new system is better because it eliminates a "light truck" definition that was abused over the years to include such non-trucks as SUVs, PT Cruisers and Subaru Outbacks.

"Even if Americans want big vehicles, they don't want them to get 4 miles per gallon," said Cuttino. "They'd prefer to have them get 10 miles per gallon."

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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