After almost half a century of fighting battles, America's Big Three - the Moderately Large Three, if you prefer - have at long last lost the war. Yes, it's official. From this day forward, fuel economy matters. From now on, judicious use of fossil fuels trumps road-hugging weight. Too bad Detroit carmakers weren't prepared. They only had fifty years to get ready.
Of course, many said the same thing - mileage is the new, eternal bogey - during the energy crises of the 1950s and the 1970s, and they were wrong. They failed to recognize that, given enough encouragement, Americans would use too much fuel again. The captains of Detroit professed their blamelessness: Americans love big, thirsty machines. Gas is cheap. What could we do?
But now that gas isn't cheap, this is the part that's important to remember. Detroit didn't have to encourage profligacy, it chose to. And some will argue that the power of advertising dollars could and should have been used to encourage efficiency. The American industry could have played the same patriotic card it deployed following 9/11 to advocate fuel conservation instead of throwing around billions of dollars to make sure there were large SUVs in every garage. It didn't have to spend some four decades fighting safety, emissions, and fuel-efficiency standards.
By way of justification, the men from the Motor City have maintained that America's large cars - virtually unique in the world for their heft - were safer. This didn't explain the big spike in deaths in single-car rollover accidents that accompanied the shift to SUVs. Or why these same companies were selling all those unsafe small cars to Europeans and Third Worlders. (Don't their lives count, too?) And it ignored the hazard large SUVs posed to occupants of normal cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. In a war between a Ford Excursion and a Focus, the Excursion wins. But only sometimes. The Focus can outmaneuver an Excursion, and it takes up less room, two keys to avoiding accidents in the first place. The truth is, if you're going to get hit by an 80,000-pound Peterbilt running late and full up, it makes no difference whether you're in a 7000-pound Excursion or a 2600-pound Focus. It's kind of like asking whether you would rather die in a fire at 1000 degrees Fahrenheit or 2200. Myself, I think I'd go with the 2200-degree fire.