The gas-guzzlers are back.
The Environmental Protection Agency's annual survey of auto gasoline mileage shows more models than ever paying the special gas-guzzler tax on fuel-hungry cars, most of them expensive European luxury models.The mileage champs are unchanged for the fourth straight year. The top two cars are again Japanese: a General Motors Corp. import and a Honda.
In the luxury gas-guzzler category for the first time are two cars bearing American nameplates, the Cadillac Allante and the Chrysler TC by Maserati. Both have heavy Italian input - the Cadillac's body and more than half the car by value is imported from Italy and the Chrysler is assembled in Italy using many U.S-supplied components.
These are not the first U.S. cars to pay the tax. Chrysler Corp.'s venerable Chrysler Fifth Avenue and its nearly identical siblings, the Dodge Diplomat and the Plymouth Fury, were taxed in the 1987 model year. They return to official guzzler status for 1989, the last year of their production run, after a year with mileage ratings good enough to take them off the list.
Many analysts have noted buyer indifference to fuel economy in recent years of stable or declining gasoline prices.
The new models, though, reflect an increasing concern with high performance, according to one observer.
"If you have a car in your lineup that does not live up to its performance image, you're in more trouble today than if you have an official gas-guzzler," said Ed Miller, a senior editor at Ward's Automotive Publications in Detroit.
Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, an advocacy group that has frequently opposed relaxation of government fuel standards, said: "We are going in the wrong direction. We ought to be headed the other way and making gas-sippers."
But manufacturers, he said, "think they'll make more in profits than they pay in penalties."
"The tax really isn't objected to by the buyer" of such luxurious chariots, said Kyle Johnson of GM's Cadillac Division. "It does not alter GM's commitment to stay away from the gas-guzzler tax on U.S.-built cars."
The guzzlers are proliferating. For 1987, 18 models paid the tax. Last year, 24 models were taxed. This year 45 models are assessed, counting five Rolls-Royces that escaped previously because their gross vehicle weight exceeded 6,000 pounds, the cutoff specified by the law. The 1986 tax law changes closed that loophole.
Other manufacturers with models subject to the tax are Maserati under its own name, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Aston-Martin, Jaguar, Volvo and BMW.
The Geo Metro recorded 53 miles per gallon in the city and 58 mpg on the highway. Geo is the new nameplate from General Motors Corp. for the various imports of its Chevrolet Division. The Metro, built by GM's Suzuki Motors affiliate, was sold in previous years as the Chevrolet Sprint.
Second place went to the two-seater Honda Civic CRX HF, also for the fourth year in a row, at 50 mpg city, 56 highway.
Last year's ratings for the two cars were the same, with the exception that the Sprint recorded 54 mpg in city traffic.
Engineers say repeat tests can yield different numbers, and this variability is probably what happened to the Fifth Avenue family, said Chrysler Corp.'s Tony Cervone.
"The car has not changed," he said. Yet in the 1987 model year it got 16 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on this highway; last year it was 17-23 and this year it is 16-23.
The tax, enacted in 1975 to encourage efficiency when fuel shortages were feared, gradually tightened until reaching its present form for 1986 models. It is $500, the minimum, for the Fifth Avenue, Diplomat and Gran Fury.
The Allante, a $50,000-plus two-seater, got an announced 16 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway last year and was not taxed. It fell to 15 mpg highway, 23 city this year with the use of a larger engine. Buyers - GM hasn't found many - will have to pay $650 more.
The taxed Chrysler TC by Maserati - some models escape - is the turbocharged version using the 2.5-liter (152 cubic inches) engine and without top-gear "lockup" in the automatic transmission. It measured 17 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. Cough up another $500.
The most fuel-profligate cars this year are four sports cars made by the British specialty manufacturer Aston-Martin and being sold in the United States for the first time.