Tailpipe tactics

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The auto industry went into overdrive last week, propelled by highly flammable legislation in California. It seems that the Golden State, which already has the country’s toughest emissions laws, passed a new bill that ties auto emissions to global warming.

In effect, the law will require by 2005 that automakers produce cars that give off the least amount possible of carbon dioxide, the major global-warming gas.

While acknowledging the reality of climate change is par for the course in Europe, California is the first state in the U.S. to actually do something about it. Other states are expected to follow. There’s no question that cars are the culprits: Together with trucks, they account for a third of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, and are a whopping 40 percent of the problem in California, the nation’s largest auto market.

The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis despite the auto industry’s multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign, which has become par for the course any time legislation looms. Industry ads from the American Highway Users Alliance and others claimed that the auto consumer’s "freedom of choice" was at risk, and that, in effect, a uniformed agent of the government would soon be stopping by for the SUV keys.

Not surprisingly, when the propaganda campaign failed, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers announced it would turn to the courts — something the automakers have already done to stop California’s 2003 "clean car" mandates.

Celebrities like director/actor Rob Reiner helped push the California bill to a narrow victory, and there was also a considerable effort by religious denominations led by activists like the Rev. Sally Bingham, who heads the Episcopal Power and Light program.

"The faith community played a huge role in helping pass this legislation," Bingham says. "Our 150 member churches wrote letters to their representatives, and we even had ministers contacting legislators who were on the fence." Religious people, she says, "are called upon to promote clean air."

Let’s face it, the future is in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and industry action can only hold back the floodwaters for so long. Despite the scare tactics, the Big Three can and will make hybrid versions of small SUVs and wagons that will offer all the utility a family of four could want. The Ford Escape hybrid, for instance, gets 40 miles per gallon and comes out next year.

In the meantime, there are some very credible small cars on the road today. Even without being forced into it by state law, you can consider a car like the Suzuki Aerio SX, a crossover station wagon with plenty of room, below-average smog emissions and 31 miles per gallon on the highway. What’s more, the three-model Aerio line is pretty cheap, starting at $13,499 in basic four-door sedan S form.

Like the Ford Focus, the Toyota Echo and the Toyota Prius hybrid, the Aerio combines distinctive tall greenhouse, narrow track styling with excellent fuel economy and good road manners. I was perfectly happy with the standard 2-liter, 141-horsepower engine, even in poky automatic trim. The lack of blazing acceleration is more than made up for by the maneuverability and nice ride. The slightly sportier SX ($15,999 as tested) comes with extras like air, power locks and alloy wheels, and will offer four-wheel drive in the fall. I’d say the SX is worth the relatively minor price premium.

The Aerio is, in fact, pretty sophisticated for an entry-level car. The little engine has dual overhead cams and 16 valves. The interior also is well finished, with excellent rear-seat room for a vehicle with a wheelbase of less than 100 inches. For Californians, or just people who care about reducing their impact on the planet, opting for a modest car like the Suzuki Aerio is a good place to start.