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Average U.S. Car Is Tipping Scales at 4,000 Pounds

DETROIT - Detroit was recently ranked as the nation's most obese city by Men's Fitness magazine. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the Motor City's chief product is also losing the battle of the bulge.

The average new car or light-duty truck sold in the 2003 model year tipped the scales at 4,021 pounds, breaking the two-ton barrier for the first time since the mid-1970's, according to a report released by the Environmental Protection Agency last week.

The fattening of the nation's automobiles is a principal reason that average fuel economy has stopped improving and the nation's consumption of crude oil has been swelling: all else being equal, moving more weight takes more energy. Add in the additional pollutants and greenhouse gases released by burning more fuel, and it is not surprising that the upsizing trend is condemned by environmental groups.

But ranged against them in an increasingly bitter debate are industry lobbyists and conservative groups who argue that girth is good, for crashworthiness and because people want more space and power, though Honda is a notable dissenter in the industry.

At the center of the debate is the Bush administration's proposed rewriting of national fuel economy regulations. Though work on the plan is still in its early stages, one important aspect of it could lead automakers to make their vehicles even heavier on average. Environmentalists are distressed by the plan, but it has not been embraced by the auto industry, either.

In recent months, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been flooded with nearly 50,000 letters and detailed comments about the plan. Many have come from organizations with an interest in the outcome - automakers, lobbyists, environmental and consumer groups - but the majority have been from individuals, some of them angered by increasingly tanklike vehicles and others by the claims of industry lobbying groups that S.U.V.'s will somehow be regulated out of existence.

And there are other motivations. "One of the things that triggers asthma is air pollution, and vehicular emissions are a significant source," said Dr. Ronald Saff, an asthma specialist in Tallahassee, Fla., concerned about rising asthma rates. Dr. Saff, 45, wrote a letter asking the agency "to make S.U.V.'s safer for families and the environment."

But Carroll Boyle, a 65-year-old retired educator from Manchester, N.H., wrote that tougher regulations "may force people into vehicles that are smaller, less powerful, and not as safe as our current options." She added, "In New Hampshire we have weather that requires an S.U.V. many days a year."

The E.P.A.'s weight statistics show that the average weight of a 2003 car or light-duty truck, like a pickup, sport utility, van or minivan, was heavier than in any model year since 1976, when the average peaked at 4,079 pounds. Just five years later, after the oil shocks of the 1970's, the average had fallen by more than 20 percent, to 3,202 pounds. The figures take into account the sales volumes of different models.

Average fuel economy peaked at 22.1 miles to the gallon in the late 1980's, according to the agency, but has eroded since then to 20.7 miles for the 2003 model year.

The agency expects the 2004 model year to finish with an average weight of 4,066 pounds.

New noncommercial vehicles are actually even heavier than the statistics show, because the largest vehicles sold to consumers, including Hummers and Ford Excursions, are not classed as light-duty, so they are not covered by fuel economy rules or counted in average weight calculations. They are also exempt from many safety standards and crash-test requirements.

The Bush administration contends that most sport utilities should be given room to grow in any new fuel economy system, citing a government study that said lightening any but the largest vehicles would do more harm than good. Thus, one of the administration's leading proposals is to divide the light-duty truck category into classes, with more stringent requirements for heavyweights.

Most major automakers have reacted cautiously, especially to the idea of broadening the system to cover the largest S.U.V.'s.

"Studies show that making vehicles lighter has an adverse effect on safety," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies on behalf of General Motors, Ford Motor, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota and others. "If all vehicles were made heavier, it would have a positive impact on safety," Mr. Shosteck said.

But Honda, which makes some of the most fuel-efficient vehicles, said its own research found that dimensions, design and materials often made more difference than weight. Honda cited government statistics showing that midsize cars have lower death rates than sport utilities, and that smaller S.U.V.'s do better than midsize S.U.V.'s.

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