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Detroit loves good mileage at last

Fifty years ago, Ford unveiled a small-scale model for its atomic-powered car of the future. A capsule in the rear would contain the nuclear power and could be replaced. The engineering challenge would be dealing with the weight required for shielding the radioactivity. That was about the time Ford came out with another shaky idea, the Edsel, which, unfortunately for the company, it put into production.

The Edsel quickly passed into history, but the Edsel's source of fuel lived on through gasoline shortages, price spikes, wars to protect oil fields and fears for a planet warmed by greenhouse gases. And it's with us today, except that our cars already go farther on less of it, and American carmakers plan to build models that will squeeze even more miles out of a gallon of gas.

Those of us trapped in the recent debt ceiling panic may not have noticed President Obama's announcement of a big increase in fuel efficiency standards, as Detroit's Big Three carmakers applauded. Gone were the usual tooth-and-nail fights against any requirement that automakers raise their mileage. Instead, thumbs went up for a near-doubling of fuel economy -- a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 versus today's 27 miles per gallon.

Quite a change from four years ago, when the auto executives camped out in Washington to protest proposals for tougher fuel economy standards. Why the new posture? Some will argue that the taxpayer bailout of Detroit (though not Ford) has dampened the carmakers' enthusiasm for a fight with Washington. Also, the federal government will be offering the industry credits for making battery-powered and hybrid vehicles, the details to be announced.

But the more romantically inclined will see another reason for the change of heart.

Americans are loving the new fuel-efficient cars that Detroit is offering. In any case, they're buying them.

The Chevrolet Cruze compact powered General Motors' U.S. sales gain in July, dominating U.S. car sales for the second month in a row. Actually, six of the best-selling vehicles in the United States are small or midsize cars. Meanwhile, Ford's F-Series -- including a six-cylinder engine that manages to get high mileage -- is among the hottest-selling pickups.

The carmakers' concern is this: What happens when gas prices go down? The average price for a gallon of gasoline is near its peak of about $4 and almost a dollar higher than it was a year ago. Will consumers pay extra for the advanced technology when the total at the pump strikes less awe?

Consumers probably will, because they are older and wiser. The economic crack-up may have created another Depression generation wary of expensive commitments, such as vehicles getting poor mileage. And few believe that cheap gasoline will ever return.

The auto industry is in the business of making cars, not pumping oil. That made Detroit's former reluctance to adopt higher fuel economy standards a bit odd. We appreciate that it made good money years ago producing gas-guzzling SUVs using older, cheaper technology. With gas prices low, consumers shrugged off the extra costs. Detroit left the market for fuel-efficient cars largely to foreign competitors, who ate their lunch when demand for them soared.

The companies are now restructured to more nimbly respond to consumer sentiment, which, happily, now coincides with the national interest to reduce dependency on oil, most of it imported. May the love between American automakers and the American consumer continue to grow for the good of us all.

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