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SUV Backlash

The SUVs keep rolling off the car lots, there's no denying that. And Congress, which rejected an opportunity to increase fuel-efficiency standards for cars and SUVs last year, is certainly not poised to change its mind anytime soon.

But the notion that gas-guzzling SUVs are our birthright as Americans is losing traction. With a war against Iraq close at hand, fuel-efficient vehicles are starting to sound prudent to more and more Americans, not just Sierra Clubbers and their ilk. Gas-guzzling SUVs are becoming-cross your fingers-uncool.

Certainly the backlash against SUVs, simmering for years, is blazing now.

You can see it in the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign launched last fall by the Evangelical Environmental Network. You can see it in the provocative TV ads aired by commentator Arianna Huffington equating SUV ownership with supporting terrorism. "This is George," a child's voice says. "This is the gas that George bought for his SUV. These are the countries where the executives bought the oil that made the gas that George bought for his SUV. These are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV."

You can see it in Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's proposal to eliminate all but the most essential SUVs in the state government fleet in favor of cars that get better mileage.

You can see it in the peace marches- Sierra Club volunteers and staff marched in San Francisco with an "environmentalists against the war" contingent on January 18, among placards that read, "If there's a war, draft SUV drivers first."

There's more. Keith Bradshear, who covered the auto industry for The New York Times until last year, blasted SUVs in "High and Mighty: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way," published last September. A billboard for BMW's Mini proclaims, "The SUV Official Backlash Starts Today." The Bush administration's proposal to boost the tax deduction businesses can take for new SUVs to $25,000 was greeted with outrage, and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) announced a bill to stop it. Toyota promised that every model it makes by 2004 will be available as a hybrid. GM said it plans to offer a broader array of hybrid gas-electric vehicles. "You just can't fly in the face of public opinion," said Robert Lutz, GM's vice chairman for product development.

Last summer, after the Senate rejected a fuel-economy hike, the Sierra Club launched its "freedom option package" campaign, in which we took the fight for fuel efficiency to consumers and auto companies. Despite what our opponents might say, the Sierra Club is not against SUVs per se, but against the loophole that allows them to pollute more than regular passenger cars. The technology to make them more fuel efficient is available now.

Whether our campaign is having unexpectedly quick results or is mirroring a shift in public opinion isn't clear, but it has struck a chord. What we've been saying about fuel efficiency for ten years is finally being echoed by many others across the political spectrum.

A hulking behemoth like the auto industry doesn't have a small turning radius, no matter how much power steering it has. The change we're seeking isn't going to happen overnight. But the wheels are starting to turn.

- John Byrne Barry

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