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High Gasoline Prices, Fuel Efficiency Drive Changes in Automobile Industry


The high price of gasoline is changing the way we drive. And there are more concerns about the environment. Car manufacturers say those factors have led to increased competition. VOA's Mil Arcega reports the race to develop the “greenest,” most fuel-efficient cars is driving an evolution in automobile design.

Total car sales in the U.S. have not declined but the market for larger sport utility vehicles has.

Dealers say new car buyers are turning to hybrids that run on gasoline and electricity. Others are turning to smaller vehicles, some, to those that can go places larger cars cannot.

But Saab Automobile Managing Director Jan Ake says the future does not necessarily mean smaller, slower cars. "This is our Saab ‘Aero X’ concept car, powered by 100 percent ethanol, a renewable energy source, and [it] generates about 400 horsepower. A little bit over 500 newton meter [a system that measures engine torque] with a top speed close to 300 kilometers an hour."

The Aero X was on display at the British International Motor Show. It is still a few years away from production.

Many car dealers are turning to markets where fuel-efficient models are already in production.

Jim Tirrel is managing director of the British arm of Mitsubishi. He wants to introduce the Mitsubishi "I" to the United Kingdom -- an ultra compact four-seat hybrid.

"From an environmental point of view the engine falls into the lowest category for emissions and is very efficient. In terms of fuel economy, we have not measured it yet but we think it's more than 60 miles [96 kilometers] to the gallon."

A small car rental company in California is carving a niche market by acquiring the largest fleet of hybrids in the United States. Cecil Claybrook at Fox Rent-a-Car says hybrids cost the same to rent as regular cars, but produce fewer emissions and save money.

"People that are taking trips to Los Angeles, or the Las Vegas trips or the Reno trips, they're cutting their fuel consumption down by a quarter," says Claybrook.

But for the ultimate in fuel economy, a Swiss-based company says the "Verde" is hard to beat. The three-wheeled hybrid produces no pollutants and gets the equivalent of more than 700 kilometers per gallon. Verde owner Walt Breitinger says there's just one catch -- you have to pedal part of the time.

"At slow speeds, it's a bicycle with electric assist. But most of the time, if I'm going over 25 miles per hour [40 kilometers per hour], it's primarily an electric car with human power assist."

Auto industry analysts say extreme vehicles such as the Verde -- which means ‘green’ in Spanish -- may take longer to catch on. But some say the automobile manufacturing industry is already at a crossroads. Ford Motor Company relies heavily on sales of trucks and S.U.V.'s. It has reported net losses of more than $100 million for the first half of this year, compared to a profit of more than $900 million last year. The company blames high gasoline prices.

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