Auto Show Mania

Inside the cavernous main chamber of Detroit's Cobo Center, the sensation of lust isn't just palpable -- it is all-consuming, swelling bigger than life as it shimmers in the spotlit glitz of exhibition after million-dollar exhibition, throbbing red hot and chrome hard. It is a lust that rumbles with the testosterone-soaked power of 250 fuel-injected horses just begging to be let loose at full throttle for a blurred run down the roads of an America where anything goes. An America where bigger has to be better and speed is the uncontested bad-ass king. And consequences? Forget about 'em. This is an America where consequences are scraps of litter to be tossed out the window and left swirling in a cloud of exhaust for sniveling pussies like me to worry about.As the world's automobile writers converged on Motown for the 1997 North American Inter-national Auto Show, a headline in the Detroit Free Press roared the theme of this year's extravaganza in a type size usually reserved for declarations of war. "Rough, ready & oh, so fast..." is what the Freep's editors declared, and damned if they weren't oh, so right....The automotive press gobbled it all up, along with the complimentary eggs Benedict, free-flowing California merlot and triple-layered chocolate tortes.But the tastiest treats in the eyes of the assembled gearheads were on the showroom floor, not banquet tables. Drool formed on their lips as they stared lasciviously at the latest Corvette, with its slick new design and a top speed of 172 miles per hour.You could see the swoon. And you could walk from one end of the massive hall and back again and not once hear the two words that would throw cold water on any torrid love affair with the automobile: fuel efficiency. Some of you might recall. Back in 1973, and again in 1979, this country was reduced to near-paralysis by the oil shortages engineered by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Politicians leapt into action, determined to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The results were dramatic. By the late '80s, the energy efficiency of all new cars and trucks had reached a peak of 26.2 mpg, and hopes were that advances in technology would increase fuel efficiency to as much as 40 mpg by the turn of the century.But those optimistic predictions have vanished. Instead of gaining ground, environmentalists and energy conservationists are battling furiously simply to hold onto the gains they've made. It's a battle they are losing."I've been working at this for eight years and have seen no progress," says Bill Magavern, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project. "In fact, we've been going in the wrong direction." The average mpg has dropped nearly 2 miles per gallon since 1987, and the prime culprit in the decline can be seen in the four-wheel-drive "sports utility vehicles" scaling a faux mountaintop center stage at the auto show.The big story to emerge from the show this year is the dominance of what are known in the trade as light truck vehicles, a category that includes minivans, sports utility vehicles and light pickups. Every automaker seems to be making them these days. Even Porsche announced it is going to be entering the market with a truck of its own in the near future. The problem is, these vehicles are held to a far less strenuous fuel efficiency standard than passenger vehicles, even though they largely perform the same function. As a result, as LTV sales increase and fuel consumption increases, the overall average mpg ratings are being sucked downward.According to the Environmen-tal Protection Agency, LTV's have risen from 15 percent of the American automotive market in 1975 to more than 40 percent now. Moreover, they are consuming more than 50 percent of the gasoline burned on America's highways. The EPA predicts market share for these vehicles will hit 45 percent by the year 2000, and that, unless changes are made, they will be burning up 60 percent of the gasoline we use.Attempts to improve the situation by raising so-called CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Econo-my) standards for these vehicles were thwarted in 1995 when Congress passed legislation preventing the Department of Transportation from upping the meager 20.6 mpg requirement for light trucks and sports utility vehicles.A presidential task force was appointed in 1995 to study the problem of the "greenhouse effect" and its relation to fuel consumption. Composed of environmentalists, regional transportation officials, energy specialists, automakers and oil industry executives, the majority of the panel advocated a dramatic increase in CAFE standards, more reliance on alternative fuels and increased government support of public transportation as the best solution. The automakers argued instead for a dramatic increase in gasoline taxes, which the oil companies objected to. The result was a standoff, with no consensus reached."The majority report was sent to the president, but absolutely nothing has been done with it," says Magavern, whose organization participated in the study. "The problem is, the president is very cozy with the automakers." But that's not the only problem.One of the most popular attractions at the auto show is a Disneyesque ride offered by the good folks at Chrysler to promote their Viper sports car. Like a lot of the vehicles Chrysler had on display, the Viper is a stunning throwback that's about as hot as one of the Big Three can get, reminiscent of the sort of late-'60s muscle car that Detroit excelled at producing.Writers and auto execs alike line up to climb nine at a time inside a windowless shell the size of a minivan. Once inside, the occupants sit transfixed as a screen in the front lights up to provide a driver's-eye view of a bumper-thumping road race. As the Dolby sound system rumbles and roars, hydraulic pistons outside shake and swerve the box to provide the sensation of taking turns at 200 miles per hour.The virtual thrills were undeniable. Speed is indeed intoxicating. But at what price?Afterward, as I talked with a friend-- a self-confessed "car guy"-- about my impressions of the show, I expressed my concern for the lack of emphasis on fuel economy."Hey, if American consumers have the money to spend on big, comfortable cars, why shouldn't they do it? What would you rather drive, a Crown Victoria or a Chevette?"When I say the word "conservation," he just smiles and dismisses me with a wave of the hand. "People don't want that," he says. "Gas is too cheap." And you know what? He's right."Past sales data show the EPA's top 10 fuel-efficient cars represented less than 1 percent of passenger car sales, and much less than 1 percent of overall car and light truck sales," Diane Steed, president of the industry-friendly Coalition For Vehicle Choice, crowed in 1995. Fuel economy doesn't sell cars, at least not now, when gasoline prices, in terms of constant dollars, are lower than they were two decades ago.But don't expect the cheap thrills to last forever. As reported in this paper a year ago, the International Energy Agency predicts the price of oil will increase by 50 percent within the next 10 years as the number of cars cruising the planet passes the 1 billion mark and OPEC once again flexes its muscle. "People have short memories," laments Magavern. For now, though, the world's automakers are content to let the good times roll and roll.No vehicle exemplifies that attitude with more brute force than the Hummers that were demanding everyone's attention these past weeks in Detroit.A civilian version of the military's Humvee, AM General's monster Hummer is without a doubt the biggest, baddest mother trucker off or on the road -- the vehicular wet dream of every frustrated urban warrior and Arnold wannabe in America."It's a terrific vehicle to drive around town in," the company rep tells me as I scan the brochure, noticing that the specs list its fording depth (30 inches!) but not the number of miles it gets per gallon. But hell, why would anyone with $85,000 to shell out for a top-shelf tank worry about something as wimpy as gas mileage? "The thing about this vehicle," the rep says, "is that it gives the driver a tremendous feeling of empowerment." And in that moment, it all became clear to me. That's what this show is all about: the quest for power at any cost. So just sit back and enjoy it while it lasts.America is getting the big 'ol Hummer we so richly deserve. Curt Guyette is the Metro Times investigative reporter.

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