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War jitters


Because of war fears and higher gasoline prices, drivers are postponing new car purchases as much as four months, reports CNW Market Research. The firm adds that even though gas is hitting $1.75 a gallon in some places (I just paid more than $2 for a gallon of premium), that’s not enough to convince consumers to switch to a more fuel-efficient car.

The magic number, says the firm, is $2.25 a gallon, and it has to stay that way for at least six months. Disruption of supplies during a Middle East war would definitely cause that kind of prolonged price rise. Meanwhile, reports the Wall Street Journal, pre-war jitters alone mean that consumers will "most likely shelve plans to buy large sport-utility vehicles until gas prices come down."

OK, let me get this straight. We’re going to war to protect the oil supplies, but fear of that war is likely to send motorists into small cars, meaning we won’t need all the extra oil that justified the war? Or something like that.

Last week the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) released its 2003 Green Book that serves as a consumer guide for environmentally correct cars. There’s also a list of the "greenest" and "meanest" cars for the year. (Highlights of the book are available online at www.greenercars.org).

The "meanest" cars for 2003 — even worse than any SUVs — are the Ferrari Enzo and the Lamborghini L-147 Murcielago, both V-12s that get 8 or 9 mpg in city driving. They’re also, of course, the cars the car magazines go nuts over every month, presenting them as normal transportation. The only thing keeping them out of the hands of the average Main Street cruiser is their astronomical price.

So what’s best? How about the Honda and Toyota hybrid cars? It’s a shame for Detroit, but 18 of the top-20 greenest vehicles for 2003 are Japanese-made. (The Ford Focus and Focus wagon also make the ACEEE list, barely.) As it happens, I’m driving a Honda Civic hybrid this week and for the life of me I can’t see why it isn’t in every garage in America. It’s quiet, practical, versatile and no great hardship to own. No, you don’t have to "plug it in." Ever!

The $21,000, 2,700-pound Honda Civic hybrid gets 47/48 gas mileage with a continuously variable automatic transmission, not quite as good as the 70-mpg two-seat Insight, but still excellent. So be ahead of the pack: Buy a hybrid while they’re still available, before the war sends fuel prices zooming up.

Sign of the cat

Imagine the contrast: In one bay of my garage, a Honda Civic hybrid; in the other, a Jaguar X-Type. For the storm visited on us last week, the all-wheel-drive Jag was perhaps the more prudent choice. And the heated seats made it pretty attractive, too.

The $43,000 six-cylinder X-Type is a small sports sedan aimed at the BMW 3-Series, the Audi A4 and the Mercedes "C" Class. While it looks rather generic from the side, it offers a classic Jaguar prow, complete with leaping cat. The interior, alas, speaks more of the Ford parts bin than the Jaguar wood-and-leather "gentleman’s club" of old.

Thanks to the storm, our roads were nearly empty and I was able to give the 194-horsepower car its head. At 70 mph it really comes into its own, staying calm, collected and ready for the next curve. For a classy all-weather tourer, the 19/26 mpg X-Type makes a better choice than any SUV you could name.

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