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The week that was

If you cared about the environment, it was quite a week for the auto industry.

In a move that was like wish fulfillment for the world’s greens, Ford hinted that it was going to end production of the bloated Ford Excursion, a massive 19-foot, 10-mile-per-gallon SUV that the Sierra Club dubbed the "Ford Valdez."

It was poor sales, rather than environmental derision, that played the major role in the Excursion’s demise. The Chevrolet Suburban sells 100,000 units a year and Ford wanted to move 50,000 Excursions, but the middle-class tank sold only a money-losing 15,000 in the first six months of the year. Perhaps the SUV market is over-saturated, or just maybe people are starting to recover from sport-utility fever.

While Ford’s scalp was dangling from the environmentalists’ bet, General Motors came under fire as well in an Environmental Defense report that rated the auto companies for their contribution to global warming. GM was tops with 6.7 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, followed by Ford (5.6 million tons) and DaimlerChrysler (4.1 million tons). Even one of the world’s greenest automakers, Toyota, produces 2 million tons a year, and its contribution is growing.

As if to make up for their internal-combustion sins, the automakers were unusually active on the fuel-cell front last week. General Motors announced both that it was planning to introduce fuel-cell-powered electric generators by 2005 and that it had won certification for a new high-pressure hydrogen tank that could give fuel-cell cars a range of 300 miles or more.

Not to be outdone, Honda said it would start leasing fuel-cell cars to customers in California and Japan as early as this fall, and Nissan said it would have its own car ready by 2003 — two years ahead of schedule.

And yet we remain in a sort of twilight zone where environmentally advanced cars are more talked about and anticipated than they are seen on the nation’s highways. Gas-electric hybrids are universally celebrated, but at most 30,000 of them are on the road in the U.S. I still get excited when I see a Toyota Prius or Honda hybrid. That could change dramatically, with some 20 new models coming in the next five years, and J.D. Power and Associates estimating that sales could reach 500,000 annually by 2006.

But for now, the cars I get to review are like my father’s Oldsmobile with advanced electronics. The tailpipe is certainly the same.

All that said, the Japanese continue to make the most fuel-efficient, low-emission cars on the market. The Europeans produce very economical cars for domestic markets, but it’s the heavier, more luxurious and sporty models that come to the U.S. I’d love, for instance, to see the tiny Mercedes-Benz "A" Class cars here, and the two-seater "Smart" cars (87 miles per gallon in diesel form), too.

Instead, we’re offered cars like the BMW 325Ci convertible, which the German company is quite right to assume meets American tastes and wallets. Priced around $36,000 with few options (cassette, leather seats, telephone, automatic transmission), the convertible strikes a sweet spot for many of my suburban neighbors. I can’t blame them. It’s one of the smoothest, most comfortable cars I’ve ever driven, yet — thanks to very sophisticated suspension — it handles like a far more demanding sports car.

The 325Ci seats four, though the rear passengers lose legroom to the complex automatic top, and offers good luggage space, all the while returning 27 miles per gallon on the highway. With better aerodynamics, fuel economy would improve further.

The 3-Series is BMW’s bestseller in the U.S., and I quite concur. The company makes bigger, more expensive cars to impress the Joneses, but the smaller ones offer the best example of form plus function.

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