Average fuel economy of cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. is at its worst level since 1980, the New York Times (NYT) said in its Friday online edition.

The newspaper said President Bush's newly announced energy plan has called for better fuel economy yet a report on vehicle average fuel economy by the Transportation Department showed that the vehicle industry is actually moving the opposite way.

The report estimated that the average fuel economy of all cars and light trucks sold during the U.S. 2001 model year will be 24.5 miles a gallon, the same as in 1999 and slightly below the 24.7 miles a gallon for the 2000 model year, the NYT said. It added that the best year was 1987 (26.2 miles per gallon) - before the vehicle makers started selling fuel-slurping sport utility vehicles in volume.

The NYT said the official figures exaggerate the nationwide fleet's fuel efficiency in any case because of the way they are calculated and because car makers get credits for vehicles designed to run on ethanol though few of the so-called dual-fuel vehicles are actually run on the alternative to petrol.

Fewer than one in 1,000 service stations even sells ethanol, the NYT noted.

The newspaper said current federal regulations require a car average fuel economy of 27.5 mpg but light trucks - including SUVs, pickups and minivans - need average only 20.7 miles a gallon, a concession dating back to the 1970s when most vehicles in the category were farmer or small business pickups.

According to the NYT, the Transportation Department report said that General Motors (20.6mpg) and DaimlerChrysler (20.5mpg) light trucks cannot even meet their more lenient standard but the two companies can use credits from exceeding the standards in previous years to avoid paying millions of dollars in fines for failing this year.

Ford matched the light truck standard, the NYT said, adding that most import brands met the rules easily.

Those few who don't, such as BMW and Ferrari, pay fines as part of their cost of doing business in the United States, the NYT said.

Meanwhile, the newspaper added, President Bush's energy report called for improved fuel economy by using new technology and subsidising the sale of petrol-electric hybrid vehicles.