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Why Is A ‘Green’ Car Company Pivoting Back to S.U.V.s?

Jamie Lincoln Kitman, The New York Times

Two years ago, the Ford Motor Company boasted about having been named Interbrand’s Best Global Green Brand and said it was committed to working to meet stricter fuel economy standards. Last week, after lobbying with the rest of the industry to strike down those standards, Ford announced that it would largely abandon the American passenger car market in favor of building more trucks, crossovers and S.U.V.s.

Ford’s announcement marks a significant turning point for the American auto industry. The only heritage United States carmaker that didn’t go bankrupt in the Great Recession of 2008, it had become one of its greenest. But its decade’s worth of investment in developing more fuel-efficient cars is now taking a back seat to profit.

To be sure, today’s crossovers and S.U.V.s are safer, cleaner and more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. But they’re still no real match for passenger cars — sedans, hatchbacks and wagons — when it comes to fuel economy and reduced emissions. High-riding S.U.V.s resist the wind more, which decreases economy (and hurts handling), as does the additional weight of these big-tired behemoths.

Ford received a $5.9 billion loan from the Department of Energy in 2009 to build more fuel-efficient vehicles. And indeed, it developed several internal combustion engines with notably reduced thirst for gasoline. Within a few years, it had a fine full line of passenger cars. The company was well positioned for a greener future. But something changed.

Automakers have spent billions in the past decade to improve gas mileage, and while Ford will add more hybrid and pure electric vehicles to the market, it now plans to pack pounds back on. “By 2020, almost 90 percent of the Ford portfolio in North America will be trucks, utilities and commercial vehicles,” Ford announced. It plans to keep in production the relatively low-volume Mustang, a sporty car that sells for higher prices than ordinary sedans, and a forthcoming rugged variation on its Focus hatchback.

So what changed? The return of cheap gas, for one thing. It makes larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles affordable again to many consumers.

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