TCS Daily

Performance Rules

By Brock Yates - May 12, 2004 12:00 AM

If we listen to the whining issued from the cosmic thinkers in Manhattan and in the halls of Congress, one would be led to believe that Americans are being starved for high-mileage automobiles. But due to the avarice and greed of the automakers and petroleum moguls, they are being lashed to the steering wheels of fuming gas-hogs as pump prices soar toward two bucks a gallon.

But wait a minute. If one actually leaves the salons of the Upper East side and Georgetown one might be discovered that an entirely different world exists -- real world where the much-reviled SUV continues to sell at a brisk rate, that mega-powered sports cars, sedans and pickups remain hotter than ever and that a vast percentage of the driving public has yet to voice concern over the rising price of even high-test, which in places edges toward $3.00 a gallon.

The elites are celebrating the arrival of gas-electric hybrids and other alternates first from the Japanese and now from the domestics as saviors to our economy and the environment. This summer five new high-mileage vehicles go on sale from Detroit. They include Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups and a Ford Escape mid-size SUV. DaimlerChrysler will offer a mid-size Jeep Liberty SUV with diesel power and a full-size Grand Cherokee with a gas engine that cuts off cylinders when extra power is not needed. A similar system is offered on the new, hot-selling Chrysler 300C sedan and its soon-to-come Dodge Magnum sister wagon.

Chrysler engineers estimate that the system will offer an extra five miles to the gallon while keeping performance at a priority. But does this matter? The regular 300C offers a "Hemi" V8 engine generating 340 horsepower with an EPA city driving rating of 17 miles to the gallon (25 mpg highway). These are numbers that hardly offer any real relief to the wallet for buyers flocking to the showrooms. Mercedes-Benz is offering its new E320Cdi sedan with diesel power that is so silent and efficient that it cannot be differentiated from a normal gas-powered model.

Recently NASCAR driver Kurt Busch and actor Kevin Bacon drove a Ford Escape Hybrid around Manhattan for 37 hours and produced an impressive 38 miles to the gallon. This generated a brief spurt of publicity in the local press but the resonance was far below that produced from Ford with its new Mustang, which this fall will offer several models with V8's pumping out 300-plus horsepower. Also headed for the Ford showrooms is the $150,000, 200 mph GT with a lusty 500 hp packed in its rear-mounted V8. These are the automobiles that will excite the public while gas-sipping compacts take a back seat.

In fact, the new hybrids and diesels headed to market will not be touted as fuel-savers, but rather as excellent performers. A Chrysler executive speaking to the industry chronicle, "Automotive News", remarked "Performance for some customers is more important than fuel economy. Clearly they want performance and they are willing to pay for gasoline to get that performance."

Every major manufacturer, domestic and imported, is offering a sports sedan, coupe, pickup, SUV or roadster with over 300 hp under the hood. Power and speed are in play across the market, and there seems to be no letup in demand. Some industry experts believe this segment of the market will remain hot (and vastly hotter than high-mileage alternatives) until regular gasoline surges past $2.50 a gallon and high-test reaches $3.50 a gallon. But with a strong economy and increasing reserves of disposable income, who is to know the public's limit of tolerance?

What we do know is that beyond the elite media and its environmental handmaidens, the fascination with fuel economy at the sacrifice in performance barely jiggles the needle when it comes to current car market.


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