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Honda, Toyota missing from White House 'hybrid car' event

Not ready to roll: Domestic prototypes only



From Major Garrett
CNN White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Japanese automakers Honda and Toyota ran into a dead end at the White House Monday, when they were excluded from a high-profile promotion, intended to showcase vehicles that run on cleaner, alternative-style engines.

A Honda executive complained about the exclusion to CNN, but White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the event was organized by domestic automakers. "My understanding is this event was set up in connection with domestic producers of automobiles, and I don't think it's any reflection beyond that," Fleischer said. "It was just the hosts of this event were the domestic producers."

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Honda and Toyota make so-called "hybrid vehicles," models of which are already on the road. That's in contrast to the automakers invited to the White House; their models aren't available to consumers yet.

President Bush and top Cabinet officials inspected vehicles brought to the South Lawn for the event. The White House said Bush wanted to highlight $3 billion in proposed tax credits for the purchase of hybrid vehicles -- which use both electricity and gas -- as a means of improving energy conservation and reducing pollution.

The vehicles the White House featured -- the Chevy Silverado, the Ford Escape and Daimler-Chrysler's Town and Country Natrium -- are not commercially available and aren't expected to be in showrooms for at least 18 months.

The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight -- which weren't featured in the administration's showcase -- are available now. The Prius has a four-cylinder engine combined with an electric motor and gets 52 miles per gallon in the city and 45 miles per gallon on the highway.

The Insight combines a three-cylinder engine with a tiny electric motor. It's the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the market, getting 61 miles per gallon in the city and 70 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the Department of Energy.

Drives right past Japanese cars

In his remarks, the president pointed to the potential of domestically produced hybrid vehicles, but did not point out that there were Japanese vehicles already on the market.

"Hybrid cars, the likes of which we just saw over there, are already in existence," Bush said. "They run on a mixture of gas and electric power. They are several times more fuel-efficient than most cars on the road today. I was told by the representatives of the manufacturing companies that more and more hybrid cars will be available in the marketplace next year."

Fleischer warned against reading anything into the exclusion of Honda and Toyota from the event.

"As far as the president is concerned, the consumers should have a choice of whichever vehicle the consumer wants to purchase," he said. "And the president wants to generally promote the use of hybrid fuel vehicles as a way of promoting conservation."

The Honda Insight, left and the Toyota Prius
The Honda Insight, left and the Toyota Prius  

Pressed about the "domestic" nature of the event, Fleischer conceded that international car companies have plants in the United States, as this country does abroad.

"Obviously, it's a very integrated world," he said.

White House officials did not deny the sales value of videotape showing Bush, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Environmental Protection Agency Director Christie Whitman inspecting the three domestically produced hybrid vehicles.

Still, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett denied any effort to intentionally exclude the Japanese automakers.

"It's not a slight of any sort," Bartlett said. "I sat in on several meetings and I never heard anyone say we should exclude foreign-owned companies."

Asked if he thought that omitting Toyota and Honda was an oversight, Bartlett said: "I really can't comment, not without having all the facts."

Ed Cohen, vice president of Honda North America, told CNN he first heard of the hybrid car event on Friday and called the White House's Council on Environmental Quality seeking someone to talk to about participating in the event, but was unable to reach anyone. Cohen said he left a message but no one from the White House called back.

"It's all well and good to demonstrate concept cars, but we have the cars on the road now," said Cohen. "If the purpose of the event is to demonstrate new technology that has the potential to reduce fuel consumption and pollution, we have the cars now. This is old thinking. We're all global companies now."

Cohen also said Honda showrooms will soon feature the Civic hybrid, which will average 50 miles per gallon and be available in hybrid and natural gas-powered models.

On the South Lawn

The three vehicles featured at the White House all combine electric motors with standard internal combustion engines.

  • The Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra Hybrid truck combines an electric motor and a conventional V-8 engine. It's to be available in model year 2004.
  • The Ford Escape HEV (hybrid electric vehicle) combines an electric motor with a fuel-efficient gas engine. It touts acceleration comparable to a 200-horsepower engine and 40 miles per gallon in the city. It's to be available in model year 2004.
  • The Town and Country Natrium, made by Daimler-Chrysler, is a hybrid fuel-cell minivan that produces no tailpipe emissions -- meaning no carbon dioxide, no carbon monoxide and no hydrocarbons. There was no estimate provided by the company on when this vehicle might be available for purchase.


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