Power and muscle eclipse economy at auto show

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    I know I’ve made a lot of smart-alecky remarks about SUVs, long before it was considered politically correct to disparage these road-hogging, gas-chugging clunks. Oh, I may have taken a verbal pot shot or two at Ford’s Excursion (mercifully headed for Edselhood next year), but I have never, ever put fake tickets, bumper stickers or dog doo on any vehicle.

    Anymore than I’d throw tomatoes at someone wearing the skin of a dead weasel. It’s too late to help the weasel, anyway. And it’s no help at all to the environment to vandalize a heap of metal.

    Okay, I admit I’m tempted when a Suburban is straddling the lines of a compact parking space. In the same way I’m tempted to ask able-bodied drivers who park in handicap zones if they are handicapped by something other than bad manners. But that’s another story.

    For the automakers to say they are only giving consumers what they want is disingenuous at best. Actually, it’s bull pucky. American industry and Madison Avenue can make people want just about anything they have to sell. Build it and they will come, salivating to own the latest, trendiest, most expensive model out there.

    To wit: the new Hummer, with its lavishly appointed interior, is being marketed to women, so their kids can say, My mom drives the coolest car. The ad execs can’t tell us what, exactly, is so cool about driving a military vehicle too wide for the lanes on Sunset Boulevard or PCH, and a parking nightmare without peer. And how cool is it going to be when the fad fades and the bazillion-dollar investment has the resale value of a Pinto. Perhaps it will have to reenlist, change its yellow paint for camouflage and take a trip to Iraq.

    How do they make otherwise sane people line up to buy these things?

    Clever marketing, like “Zero, zero, zero” no interest financing. Federal tax breaks, not for zero-emission vehicles, but for 10-mile-per-gallon guzzlers. Government incentives for lower fuel efficiency and air pollution standards than regular cars. Who do they think they’re kidding?

    The auto industry’s annual orgy at the L.A. Convention Center is not about the wave of the future. Surely, we will all come to our senses and demand fuel-efficient, low-emission cars. Honda and Toyota are already banking on it. Our own big three could have done the same if they weren’t being told by the government that they really didn’t have to. Government will get more oil somehow: Drill holes in our national parks, depose a dictator or two, sue states that have the audacity to legislate tighter emission controls.

    If the auto industry had taken the $77 million it donated to politicians in the last decade, the $37 million it spent on lobbying in one year, plus what they’re spending to sue the state of California to block its zero-emission targets, they could have developed, promoted and sold hundreds of thousands of environmentally responsible vehicles at a substantial profit to themselves and huge savings to drivers.

    Instead, the L.A. Auto Show is all about power, size and glitz. Muscle is the buzz.

    What exactly does one do with 500 horses under the bonnet? Does it take 12 cylinders to make a guy feel powerful? Does a soccer mom have to drive a Hummer to be cool?

    At least the industry is beginning to toss a bone or two to environmentally aware motorists. GM announced last month it “hopes” to produce a million hybrid vehicles by 2007. These will not be “go-carts,” it says, but its most popular cars, pickups and SUVs. So what’s taking so long? Honda and Toyota sold upwards of 25,000 such vehicles last year with average fuel economy ratings of 45 mpg.

    GM says it is in talks with the Pentagon to produce military vehicles using gasoline-to-hydrogen fuel cells. Of course, getting the Defense Department to install hydrogen-fueling stations on military bases would pave the way, so to speak, for civilian use.

    Honda is already promoting its fuel-cell technology, providing Mayor Hahn with a hydrogen-powered car. No word on where he has to go to power up.

    I was in line for GM’s all-electric car a few years back, before they chucked it as a “dismal failure.” Well, it had the range of a 20-year-old mule. So it was never marketed and never sold, only leased at a fairly steep $500 or so per month.

    But the clinker for me was that I figured out I would run out of power on the 101 in Tarzana on the way to work and about five miles north of Castaic on my way home. Sufficient disincentive to put me back into another Saturn.

    Now, if they can get the hybrid engine into a Saturn before my current model expires (sometime in 2004, maybe), I’ll go for it.