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04/30/2013

Are Americans finally letting go of the gas guzzler?

In our frenetic, jolts-per-digital-minute world, sometimes it's the glacial that stands out. Glacial as in, say, the slow-as-molasses process of separating American fingers from the steering wheels of their gas guzzlers.

Nothing says home of the brave, land of the free like power under the hood, right? And for most of our lives, nothing has truly upset that equation, not even the brief American dalliance with four-cylinder fails like the AMC Gremlin during the 1970s Arab oil embargo.

But a funny thing is happening on the way to 2025 and the 54.5/miles-per-gallon fuel economy standard set by the Obama administration (and later adopted by Canada) -- the new rules are actually working, according to a new progress report by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA).

Cynics will say, duh, $4/gallon gas. Of course Americans are buying in to efficiency. But CFA researchers behind the new report argue gas shocks alone don't fully explain the shifts they are tracking, including a new public opinion survey showing 85 per cent of Americans support the tougher fuel standards.

The importance of fuel economy is becoming "baked in to the marketplace" with U.S. automakers, consumers and policy officials -- everyone, in fact, but actual car salespeople -- aligning around expectations of better mileage, said CFA Research Direct Mark Cooper.

The CFA credits the growth of hybrids and all-electric cars. But it also emphasizes the surge in sales of a new generation of four-cylinder cars that still deliver considerable horsepower on less fuel. Four-bangers accounted for nearly half of the U.S. market in 2012, compared to barely 30 per cent in 2005.

Gas-price volatility is a huge factor, the CFA acknowledges. But the other trigger, it says, was the Obama administration's reformed fuel rules, or CAFE standards, which gave a "trigger of change" for the North American auto industry to adapt with long-term certainty.

"The industry is like an aircraft carrier -- it takes a long time to turn around," said Cooper. "But once it does, it gets a lot of momentum and builds up a head of steam."

The most noticeable difference, said Cooper, are the number of car ads today that present fuel economy as a central element of a vehicle's appeal. A decade ago, he points out, efficiency never made the short list of selling points.

In the next few years, Cooper predicted, electric automobiles will answer advances in four-cylinder gas efficiency with "longer-range, simpler-to-connect" electric cars that will intensify competition in a battle for buyers.

"Electric cars won't replace gas-powered vehicles," he said. "But they're going to increase in popularity exponentially. And the good news about that is manufacturers of internal combustion engines will be under enormous pressure to increase their efficiency."

U.S.-style CAFE standards are hardly without controversy, from the previous generation of "light truck" loopholes to detractors like Forbes, which argues for higher gas taxes to reduce gasoline use.

Others still worry how governments will continue to pay for highway maintenance as shrinking gas sales lead to declining tax revenues. Owners of hybrids and e-cars in Virginia, for example, just got slapped with a new $64/year surcharge, a fee they contend penalizes them for doing their part for the environment.  A similar fate awaits all-electric vehicle owners in Washington state, who now pay an extra $100 in registration fees.

But the unmistakable pattern, said the CFA's Cooper, is that the shift to fuel economy is here to stay. Notwithstanding the false-start of the 1970s, this time it's for real.

Mitch Potter is the Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

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The price of fuel has crippled the working class's economy. Buy a new car? hah! sorry folks, the cupboard and wallet is bare, not unless we win a lottery.

Spend $30,000 on a new car to save money on gas?.. I don't think so.. I'll stick with my big old truck that cost me $1000 (used) 10 years ago. And I live in a rural snow belt; I must drive a heavy duty vehicle in our climate.

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