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U.S.:Activists,Ford face off in New York Commentary:SUVs,oil at center of controversy

Activists, Ford face off in New York Commentary: SUVs, oil at center of controversy
Special To The Auto Channel
By August Cole

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS.MW) -- Without fireworks, free food, strobe lights and dry ice, it's hard to get anyone's attention at an auto show.

But a group of environmental and political activists at the New York Auto Show are trying to tell the automotive community that Ford Motor is leading us down the road to ruin with its SUVs.

They, too, know that theatrics matter. They were all set to upstage the Wednesday launch of Ford's hybrid Escape SUV with a floating banner. But "technical difficulties" kept the banner at bay on 11th Street, according to Jason Mark, with the environmental group Global Exchange.

But the attempted stunt wasn't a complete loss. Mark did manage to get a word in with Ford CEO and Chairman Bill Ford Jr. and pass along a business card.

"It was good to get a little face time with him," Mark said by phone from New York.

Global Exchange isn't alone in going after the Dearborn, Mich., company. Global Exchange is allied with the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network and U.S. PIRG and the coalition is going to hold a rally at the auto show Saturday.

Convincing a multinational corporation, particularly a recovering one like Ford , that it should back down from its most profitable products is like trying to pry protein from the Atkins menu.

When the companies are pressed on why automakers have become so dependent on SUVs, the standard answer is one that revolves around free consumer choice: They build what sells.

This isn't a society where traffic jams are caused by broken-down Trabants clogging the streets. Thankfully, buying a car or truck or minivan remains an individual decision whether a Ford Excursion SUV or a turbo-diesel Volkswagen Golf.

And with more than half of all U.S. sales tallying up in the profitable light-truck category, the numbers show that it's not Ford's fault as much as it is our own.

More than pump price

We know the costs. Imported oil has its price, and it cannot be measured anymore in dollars alone. The occupation of Iraq is raising the volume in the debate over petroleum consumption and bringing the stakes closer to home.

Ford should be held to task but it's not alone. Among the V8 and SUV class, Nissan and Toyota have a powerful position in the truck and SUV market. Plus, Ford has beat Motown rival General Motors to get a hybrid to market.

But Mark said that targeting Ford has a lot do with the company's potential, and promise, to get greener.

"We still think they're not being nearly ambitious enough to protect the environment, natural security and their own market position," Mark said.

Plus Ford heir and top executive Bill Ford Jr. appears to take these issues personally, making him a focal point.

"Our chairman Bill Ford has always been focused on the environment and really is striving to do more with the company and its products," said Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley.

For Ford, there is some opportunity in all the attention. Along with the hybrid gasoline-electric Escape, the company is working on a hybrid Mercury SUV called the Mariner and a midsize hybrid sedan. See video on Ford's new SUV.

Along with the tens of thousands of F-series trucks and SUV sales every month, Ford already makes one of the best gas-powered eco-friendly cars out there, the Focus. It has utility, decent headroom and can be had as a partial zero-emissions vehicle, meaning it is about as clean as you can get and still need to fill up with gas.

Rolling revolution

Both sides are highly skilled at marketing their message here, be it consumption or conservation What Global Exchange and its allies lack in budget, they make up in grass-roots ingenuity and performance. Ford has the numbers and the momentum on its side.

But the more aggressive the marketing, the more you need to realize that the decision is really an individual one.

If you really pine for revolution on the road, then the best argument to get more people to eschew SUVs, or driving altogether, is economic because one of the easiest ways to improve your cash flow is to cut back on time behind the wheel.

Or outright sell one of your vehicles. Dump all of them if you live in the rare area where mass transit, taxis, car-sharing and the old standby walking won't crimp your work or lifestyle.

By spending less on insurance, gas and maintenance and devoting just a fraction of the difference to long dinners or education or retirement or senseless vacations you'll live a lot larger. Doubt it? Consider some analysts still forecast $3 a gallon gas in some areas this summer. See full story.

Going carless isn't easy no matter where you live. So luxuriate in your deviance.

These days, Mumm Cordon Rouge can easily found for around $35 a bottle, or about the price of 15 gallons of 87 octane unleaded in Northern California.

Live better and drive less. The keys to this problem are the ones you hold in your hand.

August Cole is spot news editor at CBS.MarketWatch.com in San Francisco

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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