Who Hates High-Mileage Cars? Your Local Auto Dealers, That's Who

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U.S. Capitol

U.S. Capitol

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Sometime next month, the EPA and NHTSA will release final draft rules that increase corporate average fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Most--although not all--carmakers have signed off on the standards, but opposition has hardly died down.

The latest group to take up the fight against higher gas mileage is the National Auto Dealers Association, which Reuters reports is supporting a variety of measures to kill, delay, or defund the new requirements and the agencies developing them.

NADA is listed as one of the most powerful "heavy hitters" in campaign donations by the Center for Responsible Politics. Last month, it sent several hundred auto dealers to lobby Congress on the issue.

Remove the EPA altogether

Not that NADA is necessarily against higher gas mileage, mind you. It's just not for it, as much, or as quickly. It worries, as you would expect, about cost increases that could prevent price-sensitive buyers from signing on the dotted line for that new car.

Used car salesman

Used car salesman

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It has signed onto the legislative tactic du jour, a Republican-sponsored House bill that removes the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases, which are directly proportional to fuel economy.

A 2007 Supreme Court decision said the EPA not only can, but must, regulate vehicular emissions carbon dioxide--and that's the work the bill seeks to halt. It would defund any EPA efforts to move forward on the new standards between now and September 2012.

Usual talking points

The arguments made by the auto dealers are pretty much the same as they always have been: They say the proposed standards will drive up consumer cost, reduce safety, and limit vehicle choices for consumers.

NADA executive Dave Westcott, a North Carolina dealer, told Reuters, "This is a big jump, and we'd like to slow this process down" so dealers can "find out what's working and what's not."

The association's familiar talking points play to some inchoate fears about Big Bad Gummint: It wants to put us all into tiny little unsafe econoboxes with no performance just to save a few piddling drops of fuel.

Cost, yes; safety, no impact

So let's look at the points one by one.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adminstrator Lisa Jackson and President Barack Obama

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adminstrator Lisa Jackson and President Barack Obama

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Indeed, new-car cost is likely to rise in real dollars. Saving fuel costs more upfront, as large, lazy, simple engines are replaced by smaller, more efficient ones with sophisticated technology like turbochargers, start-stop systems, and mild or full hybrid-electric systems.

Safety, on the other hand, is hardly likely to be compromised. The NHTSA imposed new, tougher crash standards for 2011, and carmakers are acutely aware that their vehicles must score high on NHTSA and IIHS crash-safety tests. Any new cars they build will do well on active and passive safety; they have to, if they're to have any hope of selling.

Limited choices? Not so much in vehicle types--yes, you'll still be able to buy full-size pickup trucks and SUVs in 2025, though they may cost more--but perhaps performance. Acceleration isn't likely to fall much, but it won't continue rising as it has done over the last 30 years. (Drive any 1980s "performance car" and you'll be shocked by how slow it is.)

54.5 mpg isn't actually 54.5 mpg

The new standards were shepherded by the Obama White House, and have been signed off on by most carmakers--along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the influential California Air Resources Board.

Incidentally, for a variety of reasons having to do with "adjustment factors" to make outdated CAFE test cycles produce ratings close to real-world results, a CAFE standard of 54.5 mpg translates to window-sticker mileage ratings in the low to mid 40s.

For the record, that's lower than the 50-mpg combined rating for the 2012 Toyota Prius on sale today.

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