Americans, Europeans May Never Agree When it Comes to Fuel-Efficient Cars

In America, $2-a-gallon gas is still new, and they're lining up for a car called the Toyota Prius that will get an honest 44 miles per gallon.

Nov. 10—In America, $2-a-gallon gas is still new, and they're lining up for a car called the Toyota Prius that will get an honest 44 miles per gallon.

But in Europe, where gas costs more than $5 a gallon, two bucks is a laugh and a 44-mpg car is no big deal. In fact, some minicar mileage champs — mere dwarfs compared with what Americans think of as a small car — squeeze nearly 70 miles out of each gallon.

Americans will get a sampling of these cars during the next few years as DaimlerChrysler's Smart unit, Audi, BMW and other automakers test the waters here with cars much smaller and thus more fuel-efficient than they offer now.

For the most part, though, the best ones aren't even sold here, and Americans and Europeans are likely to remain an ocean apart when it comes to small, fuel-efficient cars. The reason: Americans don't want to give up the horsepower and safety of larger cars, and both buyers and regulators remain skeptical of the diesel engines that power some of the minicars.

In Europe, high taxes on gas that are designed to encourage conservation work like a charm: Consumers in Europe drive smaller, more fuel efficient and often much less powerful cars than do most Americans, but they have a wide variety to choose among. Some are quite stylish.

Smallest probably is the two-seater Smart ForTwo, sold in Canada as well as in Europe. Measuring just 98.4 inches bumper to bumper, it's nearly 4 feet shorter than a BMW Mini Cooper and way shorter than other Lilliputians such as the Mazda Miata, Honda Insight and Chevrolet Aveo. It claims to deliver close to 70 mpg.

But, like many of Europe's high-mileage cars, the Smart ForTwo has a diesel engine. It's much more economical than gasoline, and diesel powers about 45 percent of all models in Europe, but in America diesel is reserved mostly for heavy trucks. In fact, diesel cars can't even be registered in California, New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont because of state clean air requirements.

Many of the world's most fuel-efficient cars are from automakers that don't even try to sell the vehicles here, including Peugeot/Citroen, Renault, Daihatsu, Skoda (of the Czech Republic) and Tata (of India). Italy's Fiat, which makes a wide array of small cars, offers models only through its Ferrari unit.

But many of the other mileage champs abroad are sold here as well, usually under different names and often with different power train choices that usually aren't as fuel efficient as those in the lower-powered European models.

To be sure, the gap between what Americans drive and what Europeans drive has narrowed considerably in the decades since the shock of the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-74. Still, attempts since then to interest Americans in diesel engines for cars largely have fallen flat; the engines tend to be noisier, smokier and less peppy than gasoline models.

Attempts to interest Americans in very small gasoline cars with very good fuel economy haven't been much more successful; the Subaru Justy, Ford Festiva and Aspire, and Geo Sprint/Chevrolet Metro all were weak sellers and are gone.

Even this year, as gasoline soared to well over $2 a gallon, buying patterns haven't changed significantly.

Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., said fewer than a third of American car buyers consider fuel economy an important factor in their decisions as opposed to engine power. "The gap has narrowed, but horsepower still remains the dominant of the two," Spinella said.

He said his company also has found little change in attitudes about diesels: "Smelly, smoky, noisy," said Spinella.

U.S. environmentalists don't like diesels, either, because of the soot and other pollutants, but Ron Cogan of the California-based Green Car Group said today's models are different.

"The small cars marketed in the past were soulless cars," he said. "They didn't speak to people."

He says cars like the Prius and BMW's gasoline-powered Mini Cooper offer proof that well-equipped, well-designed small cars will find buyers in America.

One who agrees is Scott Keogh, general manager of Smart Cars U.S.A., a unit of DaimlerChrysler that plans to begin importing a Brazilian-made Smart model in 2006: the ForeMore, which has a back row of seats, can seat four, and is much larger than the ForTwo and intended to compete with small sport utility vehicles such as the Toyota RAV4. "I think we're seeing a trend now that small cars are becoming cool," he said.

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