The Knock In The Engine

In Motown, the days are getting colder-and it's not just winter coming on. Car sales are in the tank, and the automakers complain that they're under siege from lawmakers who want cars that pollute less and guzzle less gas. Domestic automakers, battling both the recession and Japanese rivals, insist that their cars can't do both. "We're not whining about regulation per se," says Don Buist, Ford Motor Co.'s director of automotive emissions and fuel economy. "It's the way it's all coming together and hitting us."

The pressure has been steady. Last week nine states-including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts--announced that they plan to adopt California's tough new clean-air rules. And a broad energy bill before the Senate last week called for some increases in gas-mileage requirements. On Friday the bill was killed, but Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada says he will keep trying. The new regulatory tide comes at a bad time for Detroit, where the Big Three lost $1.76 billion in the third quarter. And it comes after the automakers have already had to adjust to the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which call for some 40 new pollution-control measures. (Ford alone says it will spend more than $2.6 billion to comply.)

The carmakers are most worried about Congress's attempts to mandate more miles per gallon. Bryan's proposal--popular with environmentalists-L-would raise today's 27.5 miles-per-gallon average to 40 mpg by the year 2001. Automakers contend that heavy pollution-control equipment weighs down cars, marking them burn more gas. Richard Penna, a consultant to Toyota, calls the trade-off a "teeter-totter ... On one end is fuel economy; on the other end is emissions. If you push down on one end, the other end goes up." Some critics of the automakers dispute the "teeter-totter" claim; John DeCicco, a researcher with American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, says that conforming to California's standards will only cut the fuel efficiency of Honda's new Civic VX by four miles per gallon. And while industry lobbyists contend that higher fuel efficiency will make for smaller, unsafe cars, recent government studies dispute that claim.

None of the automakers, domestic or foreign, care for Bryan's proposals. Detroit's allies say the bill will squeeze its best-selling models: Ronald Glantz, auto analyst for Dean Witter Reynolds, says, "You're forced to build small vehicles that lose money in order to keep building large vehicles that make money." Even Japanese manufacturers, whose cars are more fuel-efficient than American machines, say more improvement will be tough. By the year 2000, Toyota's fleet will have to reach 45 mpg to Ford's 39, says Toyota vice president for external affairs James Olson; a Bryan bill would mean "we're nothing but a Tercel company again."

But while carmakers agonize over each mandated step, some have made impressive strides. Honda recently unveiled a prototype that gets 82 mpg, and Volkswagen is testing a version of its Golf that gets nearly 60 mpg in the city. The Big Three are all working on cars that can run on methanol, ethanol or other fuels. Still, automakers contend that new regulations will require high cost for minimal environmental gains. They suggest that the quickest road to improvement is to get rid of the old cars. Today's cars burn half as much gas as 1976 models, and 1960s cars were 20 times filthier than today's. David Cole, director of the Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan, says if cleaner cars are too expensive, "people will keep their old cars longer" and the air will stay dirty. Getting drivers to chuck their old junkers won't be easy. But anything that might create new buyers in today's bleak market would bring joy to the hearts of Detroit's execs.