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This argument is a little too convenient, because there's little automakers are expected to do about fuel prices. And it's unlikely that cheap gas really bothers the industry, since the most gas-gorging SUVs have had huge profit margins. Until the recent economic slump and the new era of 0% financing, buyers were willing to pay a premium for autos that aren't very difficult to build. "Take a normal sedan or truck, and just whoosh--blow some air into it--and add a little dimension off the ground," says Nissan's Hirshberg, who designed the Pathfinder. Manufacturers generally make 15% to 20% in profit on an SUV, compared with only 3% or less on a car, according to Michael Flynn, director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.
SUV profits have been crucial to the auto industry's rebounding economic performance over the past few years. That has meant more jobs not only in Michigan but in other states that produce SUV components. Which is partly why SUVs live in a kind of unprickable bubble in Washington. SUVs can get horrible gas mileage because the 1975 law that created fuel-efficiency standards made a distinction between cars and light trucks. (SUVs count as trucks because of their weight and off-road capability.) Everyone agrees that when the fuel-efficiency law was passed, Congress had no intention of exempting a huge class of passenger vehicles from regulation; SUVs didn't really exist back then. There were only the precursors--the Jeep, the Chevy Suburban--and they were considered work vehicles and novelties. In the 1970s American Motors Corp. sought to have Jeeps classified as light trucks to avoid cars' emission stan* Adards, which would have required design changes. AMC rightly pointed out that the Jeep was built on a truck chassis.
In late 1983 AMC launched a new version of the Cherokee, the first four-door SUV to become a big hit. (The S-10 Chevy Blazer also appeared that year.) Other carmakers jumped in, and by the '90s, America was in love with SUVs' rugged looks and capacious interiors. The Ford Explorer became one of the best-selling vehicles of the decade. Normally an American success would be quickly challenged by foreign competitors, but SUVs were protected. In 1964 the U.S. had placed a 25% tariff on foreign light trucks in retaliation for a European tariff on U.S. chicken. The tariff still exists, but foreign manufacturers evade it by building light trucks at U.S. plants or in Canada and then importing them under the North American Free Trade Agreement. That's why BMW, Honda, Porsche a* And Toyota make SUVs, as will Volkswagen, beginning later this year.
Proposals to hold SUVs to the same standards as cars are usually killed by a coalition of union-backed Democrats and industry-backed Republicans, even though 70% of those surveyed in the TIME/CNN poll said Congress should require SUVs to get better gas mileage. Last March Senators John Kerry and John McCain could find only 38 votes in the Senate for their bill to raise fuel-economy standards from 20.7 m.p.g. for light trucks to 36 m.p.g. by 2015. (In December, the Bush Administration moved to increase the standards by a meager 1.5 m.p.g. instead.) Meanwhile, despite improvements in technology, the fuel economy of the average American car is lower today than it was in 1980.