- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2000

The federal government values fuel efficiency so much that it forgets (or ignores) other attributes that people who buy cars might value more. A gander at the Environmental Protection Agency's Top Ten most fuel efficient vehicles list, which is published regularly, proves the point. According to sales data for the just-ending 2000 model year, as before, the cars the EPA likes best are the cars least popular with consumers frugal subcompacts that sacrifice size, safety and creature comforts to squeeze the most mileage out of a gallon of fuel.

Models that "won" include the 3-cylinder Chevy Metro and stripped down versions of the Honda Civic and Toyota Tercel. These cars are as basic as it gets, short of a moped or hoofing it so it's not hard to grasp why few people buy them. Especially when for a slight decrease in overall fuel economy, they can choose substantially larger, more powerful and comfortable vehicles.

But functionality does not necessarily preclude efficiency. Modern mid-sized cars are capable of knocking down 25-miles-per-gallon or more on the highway. That's as good or better than the stingiest economy cars of the recent past. In the 1970s, for example, cars like the VW Beetle and Honda CVCC achieved comparable city/highway fuel economy figures, but were extremely small and dangerously underpowered. They were also much less safe to be in than larger, heavier cars.

Before anyone screams about the profligacy of the American consumer, take note of another interesting factoid from the EPA's data: The country's least fuel efficient vehicles aren't selling too well, either. According to sales figures, the EPA's 10 least fuel efficient trucks and SUVs represent a mere 4 percent of overall "light truck" (the category encompassing SUVs, pick-ups and minivans) sales. Topping this list are models such as the Ford Excursion widely vilified at the time of its launch last year as the Ford "Valdez" for its rapacious appetite for petroleum. It seems clear that, as with super-efficient subcompact cars, models like the Excursion have limited appeal to most buyers. Super-size trucks tend to be purchased by only people who really need them.

The lesson to be drawn from both examples is simply that consumers are not the dumb cattle or deliberate wastrels they are assumed to be by Washington bureaucrats. People are generally reasonable and prudent and base their purchasing decisions on practical considerations. Just as it is not rational to worship high fuel efficiency to the exclusion of safety and functionality, neither is it rational to buy a vehicle simply because it is wasteful. A few greedheads and show-offs may be the exception to this rule, but in the main, people buy the kinds of vehicles that mesh with their lifestyles and needs.

What people don't need is Washington telling them what kinds of cars and trucks to buy.

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