Saying the country's two largest auto makers will not be able to meet fuel-economy standards, the government today acted to roll back the overall mile-per-gallon requirements for 1986 cars.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also said it will consider reductions in future years.
The NHTSA proposed lowering the standard to 26 miles per gallon for the 1986 models that will be introduced this fall. Before the plan becomes effective, there will be a 30-day period for public comment.
General Motors Corp. and the Ford Motor Co. had asked that the 27.5-miles-per-gallon standard be reduced, saying if it were left to stand they would be forced to produce fewer large, high-performance cars to avoid millions of dollars in civil penalties.
The two auto makers in recent years have been unable to meet the government standard, but have avoided penalties by using credits from previous years in which they exceeded the fuel economy requirements.
The action was immediately denounced by the nation's No. 3 auto maker, Chrysler Corp.
"We are about to put a tombstone up and it's going to read: 'Here Lies America's Energy Policy,' " said Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca.
Chrysler spent more than $300 million to develop a fleet of fuel-efficient automobiles that would meet the government requirements set down a decade ago.
Car Design Criticized
Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader, charged that all the auto makers could meet the existing standard if they concentrated on front-wheel-drive cars and eliminated some of the more fuel-inefficient models.
Ditlow said the rollback of the federal standard represents "a complete about-face" by the government, which not long ago was looking at the prospect of increasing the standard beyond the 27.5 figure.
The fuel-consumption minimums were imposed in 1975 as an energy conservation measure and required auto makers to gradually increase their fleetwide fuel economy ratings to a high of 27.5 m.p.g. by 1985. Under the law, NHTSA may lower or raise the standard after the 1985 model year.