Washington America's love affair with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and pickups is keeping national fuel economy at a 20-year low, the government says.
With automakers focusing on the bigger, more powerful vehicles, the Environmental Protection Agency found that average gasoline mileage for 2000 model year passenger vehicles was 24 miles per gallon, the same as last year and the lowest since 1980. The figure had climbed to 25.9 mpg in 1987 and 1988.
The drop in fuel economy corresponds to a surge in sales of "light trucks," which include vans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. Those now account for 46 percent of all U.S. passenger vehicle sales.
Light trucks tend to weigh more than cars and get fewer miles to the gallon. The average 2000 car gets 28.1 mpg, while light trucks get 20.5 mpg.
"Consumers want cars that have certain performance features," said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers that lobbies on behalf of 13 automakers. "We sell cars that get 40 miles per gallon, but fewer than 2 percent of consumers buy them."
But Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program, said Tuesday that automakers spend much of their huge advertising budgets pushing lower-mileage SUVs because they are so profitable.
"They have found that the American public will buy a large pile of steel with plush seats and cup holders, despite the fact that they will guzzle gas, pollute the air and roll over and kill people," he said.
Better gas mileage would reduce oil consumption, lower fuel costs and lower carbon dioxide emissions, he said. Passenger vehicles discharge about 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.
The federal government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, adopted in 1975 to boost fuel economy, require each automaker to reach a 27.5 mpg average fuel economy on new passenger cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks. Automakers do not reach the standard for each vehicle, but their entire fleet must meet the average.
Critics say the standards are too low, but since 1996 the auto industry has successfully lobbied Congress to block the Clinton administration from even studying a possible increase.