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high fuel prices don't dent love of gas guzzlers

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As gas prices again approach $3 a gallon, consumers are buying new vehicles that are faster and heavier than ever, and less fuel-efficient than 20 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency says in a new report.

The average fuel economy of new 2006 models was virtually flat with a year ago at 21 miles per gallon, according to the latest EPA report, despite the increasing deployment of technologies such as systems that shut off cylinders in V-8 engines and six-speed transmissions.

   


   
The incremental gains from those technologies were offset by consumers, who continued to buy lower-mileage minivans, pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Marc Schwartz, sales manager at Major Chevrolet in Long Island City, N.Y., says that while he has seen an increase in passenger-car sales, there is still a lot of interest in SUVs like the redesigned Chevrolet Tahoe. "People ask about mileage and say they are worried about it," he says. "But in the end, they still want an SUV."

The 2006-model-year vehicles are the heaviest, fastest and most powerful vehicles for any year since the EPA began compiling such data in 1975. The average weight of a 2006 vehicle is 4,142 pounds, compared with 3,727 pounds in 1997.

The EPA said the average 2006 vehicle generated 219 horsepower, compared with the average in 1997 of 169 horsepower. The amount of time it takes for a vehicle to go from zero to 60 miles per hour was 9.7 seconds in 2006, compared with 11 seconds for a 1997 model.

Fuel economy for 2006-model-year vehicles averages 21 miles per gallon. That is slightly worse than in 1987, when fuel economy averaged 22.1 miles per gallon using less sophisticated technology, according to the EPA report.

"The fleet fuel economy has remained stagnant mainly because of the types of vehicles consumers have purchased," says Charles Territo, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association made up of nine auto makers, including General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG and Toyota Motor Corp.

The EPA report divided auto makers into two groups in which Toyota, Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and affiliate Kia Motors Corp., and Volkswagen AG have fuel economies that fall between 23.5 and 24.2 miles per gallon. In the other group, GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Nissan Motor Co. had fuel economies of 19.1 to 20.5 miles per gallon.

But all of the auto makers have let fuel economy slide compared with 20 years ago, including Toyota, Honda and Hyundai-Kia, which now sell more SUVs and trucks than they did in the past.

Mr. Territo noted that auto makers sell more than 100 models that get more than 30 miles per gallon. And there are 46 models available that offer fuel-efficient technology such as vehicles running on ethanol, diesel or a hybrid engine. But auto makers also offer other choices to consumers to meet their needs, such as SUVs and pickup trucks.



More than 55% of all new vehicles purchased in 2005 were minivans, pickup trucks, vans or SUVs, says R.L. Polk, an auto-data provider in Southfield, Mich.

Despite gas prices topping $3 a gallon in California and other parts of the country, light trucks have outsold passenger-car vehicles for the first six months of this year, making up 52.5% of total vehicle sales, according to Autodata Corp.

Consumers have been shifting toward smaller SUVs, known as crossovers, and passenger vehicles in the wake of higher gas prices. Sales of large and midsize SUVs, and pickup trucks, have fallen amid increasing concern over gas prices.

Yesterday's American Automobile Association Fuel Gauge Report showed the average price of fuel is now $2.964 per gallon, nearing the record set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year at $3.057 per gallon on Sept. 5, 2005.

The EPA report reflects the balance auto manufacturers have to pursue in meeting many customer requirements at once, says GM representative Sherrie Childers Arb. She also noted safety equipment, such as air bags, also make vehicles heavier.

"Fuel-efficiency improvements have actually taken place," she says. "But vehicles have gotten faster and heavier because of other things consumers want."

The traditional Big Three have relied more on pickup trucks and SUVs for profit, which has hurt them when it comes to fuel-efficiency perceptions. When consumers are more worried about fuel economy, it tends to benefit Asian auto makers that are perceived to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.

   
   
   

In June, GM sales fell by 26%, while Ford was down by 7.1% and DaimlerChrysler declined by 13.2%. In contrast, Toyota's sales were up by 14.4% while Honda's sales remained flat.

That's why GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group have been focusing recent ads on the fuel-efficiency of their vehicles. The latest commercials for Chrysler's Town & Country, for example, say the minivan gets 26 miles per gallon.




Entry #614

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