Fuel Efficiency Is Out As Drivers Prefer Style

WASHINGTON -- Drivers are burning record amounts of gasoline this year, encouraged by a strong economy to get out on the road and are increasingly turning to vehicles with more power and less fuel efficiency.

This past summer's gasoline consumption the the United States reached a peak of 1.35 billion liters a day in July and averaged a record 1.27 billion liters a day for the first eight months of the year, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

The latest fuel mileage statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency for 1998 models show efficiency at a standstill. While a handful of small cars get high mileage, nine of every 10 vehicles get less than 12.6 kilometers per liter and nearly a fifth get less than 8.4 kilometers per liter.

For the eighth time in nine years, Chevrolet's Geo Metro subcompact was the stingiest fuel miser, getting 19.3 kilometers per liter in combined city and highway driving. It was followed by two Volkswagens -- the Jetta and Passat -- at 18.1 kilometers per liter.

But motorists are showing continued interest in sport utility vehicles and peppy cars, with 1998 models now coming into showrooms emphasizing performance and style over fuel economy. Automakers say they're providing what the consumer wants.

Much of the increase in gasoline use stems from the robust economy, simply having more vehicles on the road and people driving faster after states raised speed limits. Total kilometers traveled have been going up 2 percent or 3 percent a year.

But with cheap gasoline, drivers are also buying cars which are more fuel-hungry, especially larger sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks, than they did a decade ago when automobile fuel efficiency hit its peak, according to industry and energy efficiency experts.

Critics of fuel economy requirements emphasized that while a handful of cars get 16.8-plus kilometers per liter, few people buy them, accounting for less than 1 percent of all car sales.