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Consumer Reports

Scientists unveil vehicle with roominess of SUV, fuel efficiency of car | (KRT) Vilified by critics as gas-guzzling road hogs. Defended by families who crave all that space for kids and soccer gear.

How to defuse the cultural flashpoint that is the SUV?

Tuesday, a team of scientists suggested a way: Build a big car with the appetite of a little one.

At a news conference at Penns Landing, the Union of Concerned Scientists unveiled a blueprint of the "Guardian," a vehicle the group said would get up to 36 miles per gallon - a 71 percent improvement over the Ford Explorer it is based on.

The modifications - all using available technology - would cost more up front, but would pay for themselves after five years, said David Friedman, a mechanical engineer who co-designed the Guardian.

The better mileage would not come at the expense of engine power, he said.

"All of the technology is in the hands of the automakers," Friedman said. "The problem is, they're not giving it to the average consumer."

The Guardian would also be safer than the average SUV, which is more prone to rolling over than the typical car, said Carl Nash, a former federal auto-safety official who worked with Friedman on the design.

A leading automotive trade group dismissed the report as repackaged ideas that either are impractical or have been largely rejected by consumers as too expensive.

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"It's our contention that consumers know best what they need for their families in a vehicle," said Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

He acknowledged the existence of the various features proposed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, an activist group outspoken on issues ranging from global warming to the use of antibiotics in "factory farms."

Shosteck predicted most of the features would be too costly or ineffective if incorporated into a real car.

"Let's see them build it if they can," Shosteck said. "Their vehicle may look good on paper, but we have to make vehicles that drive on pavement."

Among the features aimed at improving gas mileage:

A six-speed automatic transmission, up from the usual four or five. (This would improve efficiency in the same manner as having more gears on a bicycle.)

An engine that shuts off at stoplights and during stop-and-go traffic, but restarts automatically when the driver releases the brake (made possible by a device called an integrated starter-generator)

A smoother, lower and lighter car body for improved aerodynamics, and lower-resistance tires.

Shosteck said such tires can be unsafe in winter; the Guardian's designers said they are not. The tires are available on some of the hybrid cars now on the market.

The designers also proposed a scaled-down Guardian with fewer gas-saving features, which they said would still achieve 31 percent better mileage than the Explorer and would pay for themselves in two years.

As for the safety features, chief among them are stronger roofs and seat belts that tighten during a rollover, not just during a regular collision.

Nash, former head of the Accident Investigation Division of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, offered proof that the features are possible: the Volvo XC-90 already incorporates most of them.

Most automakers don't offer most of the features because the government doesn't require them to do so, he said, and because they aren't a selling point.

"A strong roof does not have sex appeal," said Nash.

In the fancier version of the Guardian, the various safety features would cost $645 and the fuel economy features $2,315, the group said. On the scaled-down model, the costs would be $600 and $135.

Shosteck, the industry spokesman, said he believed the estimates were too low, but could not provide specifics. Nash countered that his estimates were reasonable, assuming that the features would be standard equipment and not offered as options.


To see the design, go to:

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© 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services