Detroit's slowly shifting to efficient cars

Ford Expedition SUVs go through the assembly line at the Ford Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne, Michigan. Ford is investing $75 million to prepare the plant to convert to small-vehicle production, planned for 2010.

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KAI RYSSDAL: By all indicators, four bucks a gallon was about the point where American drivers cried uncle. More of us are riding bikes to work or taking mass transit. Sixty-five is the pre-set on cruise control for some, instead of 75 or 80. And it works. Gasoline demand has been down a couple of percent for the past several months. But for all the talk about smaller, more fuel-efficient models, it's taken a while for Detroit to catch up to the rest of us.

Marketplace's Steve Henn reports the Big Three automakers are just now taking some simple steps to improve the mileage of the cars they sell.


STEVE HENN: Lou King is the general manager of a Ford dealership in suburban Washington, D.C. When customers walk into her showroom, gas mileage is on their mind and gas prices are only part of the reason.

LOU KING: It's a social trend as well. I think that people want to be viewed as green.

But for Ford, GM and Chrysler, that's not easy. Mike Quincy follows the industry for Consumer Reports.

Mike Quincy: For the past 15 years the American public has wanted to buy big trucks.

The Big Three delivered, investing billions in plants that build gas guzzlers. Quincy says retooling the industry will take years.

So in the meantime GM, Ford and Chrysler are tweaking their existing models. They're changing tires, adjusting transmissions and exhaust valves in hopes of getting one or maybe two more miles per gallon. Sam Winegarden runs engine engineering at GM.

Sam Winegarden: Some of those things can be rolled out pretty quickly.

But Winegarden says other changes in the works, like building big engines that burn less gas, take longer. But you have to wonder, why'd they wait so long to do the little stuff?

Quincy from Consumer Reports says there is no good answer but changing course in the auto industry has always been tough.

QUINCY: It's like a huge aircraft carrier. It doesn't stop on a dime. It doesn't turn on a dime.

And it burns lots of gas.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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