Going for distance

Mileage: Ford recognizes that American car buyers want their SUVs to be fuel efficient.

July 29, 2000

WHEN SPORT utility vehicle owners were shelling out $50 this spring to fill their gas tanks, a wave of anxiety permeated the Ford Motor Co.'s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters. Top executives worried that if fuel prices remained high or continued to climb, SUV sales would plummet.

A drop in SUV sales would have been devastating to Ford's bottom line. The company sells about 800,000 annually -- one-fifth the automobile manufacturer's domestic sales and the most profitable product it offers. Half of Ford's profits come from selling gas-guzzlers -- SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks.

The announcement that Ford will voluntarily increase the fuel economy of its SUV vehicles by 25 percent over the next five years is a remarkable turnabout. Ford, like the rest of the auto industry, has resisted nearly all efforts by the federal government to increase mileage standards. The auto-makers maintained that they could not build fuel-efficient SUVs and light trucks and still make money.

Faced with a possible devastating drop in sales and profits, Ford apparently discovered it indeed have the engineering skills to increase the mileage of these behemoths and still make money.

In all likelihood, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler will quickly follow suit. We've seen this before. When Lee Iacocca two decades ago made air bags standard equipment in Chrysler vehicles, the rest of the auto industry quickly did the same.

Making more fuel-efficient vehicles is in everyone's interest. It's too bad the nation squandered millions of gallons of gasoline before one major carmaker realized that was true.

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