Analyst: Big Three Still Lag on Fuel Efficiency

Toyota Prius

A Toyota Prius at the company's showroom in Tokyo. Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Toyota plans to ship some 180,000 Priuses to the United States this year, but the Japanese automaker, as well as other manufacturers of hybrids, won't even come close to meeting America's voracious demand. In fact, demand is so far outstripping supply that overall hybrid sales actually fell last month because dealers had so much trouble getting them onto their lots.

At the same time, Detroit's Big Three automakers have faced new troubles, as consumers turn their backs on oversize gas guzzlers. GM recently announced it would shut down four pickup and SUV plants and conduct a "strategic review" of the Hummer.

U.S. auto manufacturers not only have made poor decisions in recent years, says Jalopnik.com's Ray Wert, they have traditionally failed to plan for the long term, while their Japanese rivals look much further to the future.

But even now, says Wert, Detroit hasn't gotten the message that consumers, suffering from rising gas prices, want more fuel-efficient cars. "If I were working at GM," he says, "I'd say we need to jettison Hummer, we need to take a look at whether or not we need to have GMC still exist, we need to cut down to one large SUV, one pickup truck and focus the rest of our [research and development] on more fuel-efficient vehicles."

Even now, American manufacturers are making more fuel-efficient cars overseas than they are selling here. Most run on diesel, which Wert says American consumers have not embraced. It may at first appear more expensive at the pump, where it costs more per gallon, but Wert points out that in the end it's much cheaper, because diesel can get 60 to 70 miles to the gallon. But, he adds, there aren't enough diesel stations in most of the U.S., and, he observes, "There's still a perception among American consumers that diesel smells."

Wert also notes that the U.S. automakers are looking at innovations for the future. GM is working on the Chevy Volt, scheduled to hit the market in 2010, which will be a gas/electric hybrid plug-in, meaning that it will literally plug into regular home electric sockets. Toyota is also working on a hybrid plug-in version of the Prius.

GM and Honda are also both working on a hydrogen fuel cell car. The car should get 80 miles to the gallon, but one problem would be creating a network of hydrogen fueling stations.

So, for now, is a hybrid the best option for people who want to save gas? Wert says hybrids might be the most effectively marketed option, but not necessarily the cheapest. Many used cars might get decent gas mileage at half the cost of a new Prius. And, additionally, he points out that for consumers driven by green concerns, "If you're driving a car, you're not using an environmentally friendly product."

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