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Message Gets Garbled on Patriotism and Gas Guzzlers

November 23, 2001|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Which is more patriotic: Buying an American auto maker's sport-utility vehicle, or driving a smaller, less gas-guzzling car?

Motorists are getting contradictory messages as the war on terrorism reshapes the home front debate over energy policy.

Sales of pickups and sport-utility vehicles have surged lately, with car makers offering interest-free deals and encouraging consumers to "keep America rolling," as the General Motors slogan goes. But conservation advocates are telling Americans that the best way to keep the nation secure is to use less gasoline.

"If you notice these days, the bigger the SUV, the bigger the flag," said David Nemtzow, president of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy. "I don't doubt the patriotism of the drivers, but couldn't they show their patriotism a little better by putting their flags on a smaller car?"

America's ties to the Arab world have been under scrutiny since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, prompting urgent calls for the U.S. to reduce its dependence on oil imports.

The Bush administration says this can be accomplished by producing more energy in the U.S., including drilling in the now-protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Environmentalists argue that the best course of action would be to promote fuel conservation and energy efficiency.

"People don't want to be told that if they drive a big, heavy, fuel-inefficient car, they're being unpatriotic," said Jim DiPeso, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection. "We need the political leaders to stand up and say that efficiency and conservation are good for America."

The auto industry says it is working hard to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles, but it opposes any mandatory toughening of federal standards. For now, plunging gasoline prices have deflated consumer interest in high-mileage cars.

"Fuel economy is on the list of what consumers are looking for, but not necessarily on the top of the list," said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "They're still looking for vehicles that meet their needs."

Auto sales slumped briefly after the Sept. 11 attacks, but soared a record 26.4% last month compared with October 2000, thanks mainly to zero-interest financing deals. GM's truck sales jumped 47%; Chrysler's Jeep Liberty, Ford's F-Series pickup trucks and Ford's Explorer SUV all set sales records.

The U.S. consumes far more oil than any country in the world, and relies on imports for more than half its needs. More than 10 million barrels a day come from abroad; almost one-fourth is from the politically volatile Persian Gulf.

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