Commentary

My office overlooks two of Metropolitan Detroit’s mightiest freeways. When I look down, I see wonderful shiny rows of diversity. All manner of cars and trucks speed, and sometimes crawl, on their never-ending journey past Ward’s Automotive Group Headquarters. I marvel at what Alfred P. Sloan called products for every purse and purpose.

I see them as the offspring of the largest manufacturing enterprise in the U.S., one that represents about one in 10 of all the good jobs we have. It is an industry that played a major role in shaping our society and helped make the U.S. an economic powerhouse.

But when politicians in Washington look down from their offices, they apparently see only two things: politically correct consumers doing their civic duty by driving small cars and hybrid-electric vehicles that are helping America achieve energy independence and curb global warming; and they see people who need to be protected from themselves because they are driving big vehicles made by Detroit.

“It’s difficult for the auto industry to understand how unsympathetic members (of Congress) are from other parts of the country. People look at them like they’re the tobacco industry,” Michigan Congresswoman Candice Miller tells Newsweek magazine.

Clearly, now that Washington is loaning Detroit auto makers $25 billion to begin repenting their evil ways, legislators will try to turn the fuel-economy screws tighter so they can limit the number of unhealthy vehicle choices General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are able to sell weak-willed consumers.

That no doubt will lead to government mandates for increased production of smallish, high-mileage vehicles such as the Chevy Volt.

The upcoming Volt is a magnificent piece of engineering. The Toyota Prius arguably is the most important car of the past 20 years. The upcoming Honda Insight hybrid is a technical triumph, as is the amazing Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen-powered car. America needs many more of these types of vehicles.

But when I see pictures of them, I can’t tell them apart. It reminds me of Soviet-era central planning. Yes, all these cars further The State’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and consumption of foreign oil, but comrade, they look boring and not everyone can drive one.

By most auto maker accounts, about 70% of fullsize pickup owners are not frivolous urban cowboys. They really do need pickups for their utility. Likewise, a high percentage of large SUV drivers buy them because they need them, not because they are compelled by some neurotic urge. They have large families. They live in the country, where the roads are not plowed in the winter. They tow stuff.

It also is wrong to assume Americans automatically will buy more fuel-efficient cars.

A recent study by market-research firm Strategic Vision says Americans are downsizing their cars now because of tight credit and overall economic uncertainty. Fuel economy remains well down the list of key features buyers look for when choosing one type or brand of vehicle over another.

Forgive us for our decadent and unhealthy choices, oh wise members of the new Washington Automotive Politburo. Fast red convertibles and big utility vehicles are the opiate (or tobacco) of the people.

But this still is America, where people should be allowed to buy what they want and auto makers should be allowed to make a few dollars off our human weakness. Pretend the profits are from something politicians like, such as casino gambling. This still is a capitalist society after all. At least, it still was at press time.

dwinter@wardsauto.com