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The SUV Is Offered an Environmental Makeover

September 17, 2003|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

An environmental group long critical of sport utility vehicles unveiled Tuesday its own design for such a vehicle, saying it could save millions of barrels of oil and thousands of lives at little extra cost to consumers.

The Union of Concerned Scientists said its design for an SUV called Guardian, which is based on a Ford Explorer, incorporated fuel efficiency and safety technologies that already are used in some vehicles.

A lighter, lower, less-thirsty sport utility vehicle with rollover-sensing air bags, high-strength steel roof supports, electronic stability control and a high-output V-6 engine would cost $735 to $2,960 more than the price of a Ford Explorer, said Jason Mark, Berkeley-based director of the group's Clean Vehicles program.

"At today's gasoline prices, the difference would be recovered in just two years," Mark said.

California, where air-quality regulators have drafted the nation's toughest automotive pollution controls, is seen as a key market in the group's campaign to get consumers clamoring for a safer, more fuel-efficient SUV.

The U.S. version of the Guardian, with acceleration, towing and hill climbing power equal to or slightly better than a V-8 powered Explorer, would get 27.8 miles per gallon, a 31% increase over Ford's best-selling SUV, Mark said.

A bigger potential benefit than fuel efficiency, Mark said, is that the Guardian's safety features could reduce traffic-accident deaths attributed to SUV design by as many as 2,900 a year in the U.S.

"It's just a question of bringing it all together, and that's what the auto industry hasn't done," Mark said.

Ford Motor Co., whose Explorer was used as the basis of comparison for Guardian's performance data, declined to comment Tuesday. A spokesman for the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said that safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles already are available but aren't always selected by carbuyers.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has issued SUV reports in the past saying that fuel efficiency could be boosted substantially with available technologies. Mark said frustration over the auto industry's insistence that increased fuel efficiency would come at the price of reduced safety pushed the group to design a vehicle.

The group's engineers said that many of the safety devices they advocate were already in use in Ford's Volvo XC90 sport utility and that some of the highlighted engine and transmission technologies were used in Honda and Toyota SUVs.

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