Debra J. Saunders

SAN FRANCISCO -- I push the pedal to the metal as I challenge another journalist driving down Folsom Street to see who can make it back to the Sierra Club convention first. She's driving an SUV, a 2006 Mercury Mariner with a gasoline/electric hybrid engine. I'm in Ford Focus with a hydrogen fuel cell. There's no provocative "vroom, vroom" when I jam the accelerator at a standstill. I have to lower the windows to issue my dare.

 I win.

 "Awesome driving," says Sierra Club spokesman Eric Antebi from the backseat, as I pull into the staging area. He's already tickled at the odd convergence of Ford, Honda and Toyota at the Sierra Club's eco-convention. So he's happy to humor a Republican global-warming agnostic with a lead foot.

 Detroit has joined Japan in recognizing a market for more fuel-efficient cars, as all automakers are looking now at putting hybrid engines in bigger cars.

 Later, I drive the Mariner and find that what the folks at Ford say is true: The hybrid Mariner may cradle a four-cylinder engine, but, as the show-floor crew intoned, "with the performance of a six-cylinder." The Mariner hybrid boasts 33 miles per gallon in the city/29 mpg on the highway -- a big boost from 22 city/26 highway stats for the all-gas version.

 Finally, Ford and its divisions are looking to improve fuel economy.

 Except now -- talk about a bad timing -- the Bush administration is poised to poison the well. It has proposed questionable changes in federal fuel-efficiency standards for SUVs and light trucks.

 I should note, the Bushies have not proposed changes in CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards for sedans, which would remain at 27.5 mpg. Also, Bush already has raised standards for SUVs, light trucks and minivans -- the 2005 standard is 21.2 mpg for light trucks; it will rise to 22.2 mpg in 2007.

 Now, alas, the Bush administration is pushing for what it calls tougher standards for SUVs, with different standards based on size. The bigger the SUV, the more gas the Bushies will allow it to guzzle. Under this plan, the fuel-economy standard for the smallest SUV models would be 28.4 mpg by 2011, while the CAFE standard for the largest vehicles -- like a Dodge Ram truck -- would be 21.3 mpg in 2011. For now, Team Bush would exempt Hummers and other monster trucks that weigh more than 8,500 pounds, because they are so big they are considered commercial vehicles.

Debra J. Saunders

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