For decades they have thundered along America’s highways and choked up parking lots, a symbol of extravagance unchallenged by politicians, emissions standards or common sense.
They are the four-wheel-drive behemoths known to the US Government as “light trucks” and to consumers as SUVs (sport utility vehicles) — but their easy ride as the world’s most conspicuous mobile polluters ended this week.
In a coup that achieves something President Clinton promised but never delivered, President Obama has forced the big three US carmakers, and their unions, to accept tough mileage rules for cars and SUVs. The rules will cut emissions from vehicles by more than a third over the next four years.
Whether the new rules end America’s love affair with huge cars remains to be seen. But they are being introduced at a time when SUV sales are at a fraction of their peak level five years ago. Their demise coincides with the country’s first mass-produced “plug-in” electric car, which finally rolled off a Michigan production line this week.
From 2016, new cars and SUVs will have to deliver an average of 35.5 miles per gallon (42.6 miles per British gallon), comparable for the first time with European and Japanese requirements.
SUV mileage under the new regime is expected to average 28.8mpg (34.5mpg in Britain), or nearly three times that of the Hummer H1 that Arnold Schwarzenegger once drove into Times Square in New York to begin the vehicle’s transition from armoured personnel carrier into celebrity runabout.
The new rules end a notorious loophole in US law by which SUVs were exempt from emissions standards that applied to cars. This made them so much more profitable that at the peak of the sport utility boom, a single Ford plant was generating up to $15 million (£9.8 million) a day in pre-tax profits.
The rules were welcomed yesterday by the industry and environmentalists. The US Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which had little choice but to accept the standards after the $25 billion bailout of Chrysler and General Motors, said they gave the industry “a clear road map” instead of a patchwork of differing state rules.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said they were “good for consumers, companies, the country and the planet”. Ray LaHood, Mr Obama’s Transportation Secretary, called them “historic”, claiming they would save consumers $3,000 per new vehicle and cut emissions by 1 billion tons.
The Big Three producers will have to spend about $52 billion to upgrade engines, power trains and air-conditioning systems to meet the requirements. The average cost of a new car or SUV is expected to rise by $1,000 as a result, meaning that the future of American motoring depends on consumers’ willingness to pay a modest premium for old-fashioned cars — or a larger one for something very different.
General Motors’ new management has famously “bet the company” on the Chevy Volt, an electric super-mini with a small petrol engine designed only to recharge its batteries on long journeys. Its 40-mile range on batteries alone means that commuters living less than 20 miles from work would almost never have to fill their tank. GM has high hopes, despite its price tag of $40,000 before federal tax rebates.
Its main competitor at the New York International Auto Show is the allbattery Nissan Leaf, which will cost $32,000 with a range of 100 miles and no petrol-powered back-up.
US motorists have shown repeatedly that their affection for big cars rebounds as petrol prices fall, but the new regulations reflect a long-term trend. On average, Ford sold 412,000 Explorer SUVs each year from 1995 to 2003. By 2008 sales had slumped to 78,000. GM has sold the Hummer brand to a Chinese rival and SUV sales fell overall by 52 per cent last year alone.
The new standards are based on a 2007 Supreme Court Ruling that reclassified carbon dioxide as a pollutant. They will be enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, whether Congress approves or not.
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Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 The gas-guzzler tax on this is $6,400, (£4,200), bringing the total price to $362,400 for a car that can reach 60mph in three seconds. A 6.5-litre, V-12 engine pumps out 632hp, enough to reach 211 miles an hour at 13mpg (estimated US gallons)
Cadillac SRX If you want an unnecessarily big antisocial 4x4, you can do no better than this, according to Jeremy Clarkson. Accepted by car enthusiasts as the ugly duckling of the SUVs, the motor makes up for what it lacks in looks with 17mpg
Hummer H2 David Beckham’s favourite car, perhaps for its macho 6-litre V8 engine. Fifteen hundred Americans bought the 7mpg monster last year
Cadillac Escalade SUV The ultimate accessory for any rapper, it has a 6.2-litre engine that attracted 16,000 Americans to invest in a 12mpg motor last year
Chevrolet Corvette A slick sports car that can cruise at 185mph — at great environmental cost. There are about 750,000 of these, which promise 16mpg, registered in the US
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