The United States government yesterday proposed the largest increase in automotive fuel economy in more than a decade, calling for a 7% improvement in the performance of sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans, the New York Times (NYT) reported.

However, the newspaper said that critics, including many environmentalists and top Democrats, claimed the proposal demanded no more of the vehicle industry than it had already committed itself to achieve on its own.

The plan was however praised by some moderates, and auto executives called it a challenge, the NYT added.

The New York Times said the proposal would require vehicle makers to increase the average fuel economy of so-called "light trucks" by 1.5 miles per gallon, to an average of 22.2 miles per gallon, by the 2007 model year. The administration said that would reduce US petrol consumption by 2.5 billion gallons to the end of that year, the NYT said.

"I'm sure everyone who doesn't know about the industry will say, `Gee-whiz, what's a couple of tenths of miles per gallon per year?' " the New York Times cited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge saying as he announced the proposal in Washington D.C. "This is going to be challenging for the industry to meet, but we feel they can do it."

According to the NYT, Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who is considering challenging President Bush in 2004, was unimpressed. "The administration is merely ratifying less than what industry is already doing on its own, without challenge or incentive," he told the newspaper.

The New York Times noted that Ford has pledged to improve the fuel economy of its sport utility vehicles by 25% by mid-decade while General Motors and DaimlerChrysler have said they will be competitive with Ford.

"Improving the average SUV's fuel economy by a paltry one and a half miles a gallon would save less than 3% of the oil we already import from Iraq," Senator Kerry told the NYT.

The newspaper noted that Senator Kerry was the co-sponsor of a Senate proposal, with Senator John McCain, a Republican of Arizona, to require a 50% increase in fuel economy for light trucks and for cars over 12 years. It was defeated in the Senate last March by a wide margin.

The administration plan calls for three annual increases in light truck fuel economy beginning in the 2005 model year, the New York Times said. Suggestions will be accepted for 60 days, and then the regulators can impose the change without Congressional approval, the report added.

The newspaper said that booming US sales of sport utilities and pickups have become an issue at a time of escalating tension in the Middle East and growing dependence on imported oil but proposals to improve fuel economy have long faced stiff opposition from the domestic car makers, labour unions and sympathetic lawmakers — in part because SUV sales, in particular, have become crucial to the Big Three's profitability.

Government officials from both parties yesterday characterised the Bush administration's plan as a way to take some action beyond what its predecessors could accomplish without offending the industry, the New York Times said.

According to the newspaper, light trucks sold in the US are now required to average 20.7 miles per gallon, though there is some flexibility to carry over credits year to year, while cars must average 27.5 miles per gallon. The industry takes advantage of the split standard by designing vehicles that resemble cars, like Chrysler's PT Cruiser, yet qualify as light trucks because they have attributes like a rear seat that can be folded down to form a flat bed, the newspaper added.

An official involved in regulatory deliberations told the New York Times that the administration was considering more steps after the 2007 model year and might revise the definition of a light truck so that car-like vehicles are not included while light truck standards might be extended to include the biggest sport utilities, such as Hummers, which are not now subject to fuel economy rules.

Daniel Becker, the top energy expert at the Sierra Club, an environment group, told the New York Times that the proposal was "so minuscule that it won't be felt."