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A BETTER IDEA

since the energy crisis of the 1970s, in fact, -- but it now appears that cars that are truly fuel efficient may before too long become a reality on America's highways. That's an important breakthrough for anyone concerned with the global environment and preservation of our limited natural resources.

The latest development came this week from Ford Motor Co., which has been working in cooperation with the federal Department of Energy. Ford said its experimental P2000 LSR, a five-passenger mid-sized sedan, will be delivered to the Energy Department for testing next month. Featuring a hybrid diesel-electric engine, the vehicle gets about 60 miles to the gallon, twice the performance of today's typical car. And even better, it pollutes less.

What's particularly significant is that Ford's new car is not intended to be a high-priced toy for the rich only. The auto maker says the new four-cylinder vehicle is a family car with the room and acceleration of its popular Taurus model. It was able to double the fuel efficiency through a total systems redesign and use of light-weight materials. The result is a car that is 40 percent lighter than the Taurus but just as roomy. That's quite an accomplishment.

Ford's announcement comes as two Japanese car makers, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp., prepare to introduce their own energy-efficient vehicles to America's motoring public. Honda hopes to begin marketing its two-seater Insight in December while Toyota plans to have its four-door Prius in American show rooms in late spring. Each uses a traditional engine and electric batteries to achieve 65 to 70 miles per gallon.

All three auto makers -- Ford, Honda and Toyota -- say affordable pricing is key to general acceptance of their new cars.

Ironically, announcements about advances in highway-energy efficiency come as Congress balks at ending a five-year freeze on increasing vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, and Americans continue their love affair with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles that discharge more pollutants than passenger cars.

Since 1995, the House of Representatives' annual Transportation Department spending bill has shortsightedly banned the government from even studying changes in fuel standards. During the same time, SUVs, light trucks and minivans -- all less fuel efficient than passenger cars -- have become so popular that they account for nearly 50 percent of new vehicle sales.

In today's global economy, any development that improves the quality of life anywhere, whether it be in America or in Japan, eventually will affect the quality of life everywhere. That's why efforts by Ford, Honda and Toyota to conserve energy, reduce pollution and give the world new technology at affordable prices is good news.

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