EVERY JANUARY the world's automakers assemble here for the glitzy North American International Auto Show, an opportunity to show off their best products to the world's biggest consumer auto market and over 7,000 journalists from around the globe. And every year, the show kicks off with the North American Car of the Year Award. This year, to no one's surprise, the 49-journalist panel gave the top prize to the politically correct media favorite, the Toyota Prius hybrid.

But as impressive as the Prius's green hybrid gas/electric engine technology is, the breathless press clippings hide a far more significant generation of vehicles now sitting in America's showrooms. So-called PZEV engines--zero-emission gasoline engines currently available in such mass-appeal cars as the Ford Focus and Honda Accord--are having a much greater positive impact on the environment than their better-known hybrid cousins.

PZEV (pronounced pee-zev) technology is not getting the attention it deserves because it is an evolution of--and not a replacement for--the internal combustion engine, a device despised by environmentalists and their political allies. And that is an unfortunate thing for America's environment.

Originally developed for the California and Northeast markets (where lower emissions are mandated), PZEV technology is going national. Ford's Focus has a PZEV option with a 2.3-liter engine that is America's premier PZEV. At $13,455--or just $115 more than a base model four-door Focus--the PZEV Focus is vastly more affordable than the $20,500, four-door Prius.

And it's cleaner too. The PZEV Focus produces fewer particulate emissions--nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons--that cause smog. What's more, the PZEV Focus sacrifices nothing in performance, actually improving on the standard-engine Focus. Pumping out a zesty 145 horsepower, the PZEV accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 9 seconds. It takes the Prius 11.

And, because of its price, the greener Focus sells to a wider audience. Ford projects 100,000 sales through the 2004 model year. By contrast, only 56,255 Toyota Prius hybrids have been bought here in the last three years.

Says Ford Motor Company's vice president for global product development, Richard Parry-Jones: "Because of its impact on air quality, the PZEV will have a much more positive impact [than the hybrid] simply from the weight of the numbers."

Yet, despite the numbers, the U.S. government subsidizes Prius buyers, but not PZEV buyers, with a $1,500 tax break--a sweet bonus for upscale customers like Arianna Huffington and Cameron Diaz who choose the car as a social statement. Why the discrimination? The reason lies in the government's greater obsession with global warming than with the health-related emissions that produce smog.

As Ford's Parry-Jones emphasizes, "The hybrid and PZEV are solutions to two different problems."

The one advantage the Prius hybrid has over the PZEV Focus is fuel economy, with the hybrid achieving 51 mpg in highway driving, well above the PZEV's 36 mpg. As a result, the Prius produces less carbon dioxide, a gas many scientists link to global warming.

But global warming is not an issue in the United States, where the Senate voted down the Kyoto Treaty 97-0. Nor is fuel mileage an issue in a country where gasoline is well below $2 a gallon. A 2003 survey by J.D. Power & Associates, a global auto forecasting company, found that only 15 percent of consumers consider fuel economy when buying a vehicle. Even the perennial political argument that higher fuel mileage would make the United States less energy dependent on the Middle East is a red herring. Europe, which taxes its gasoline to $4 a gallon, is still over 50 percent dependent on the vast--and cheap--oil resources of the Middle East.

So while American car companies like Ford are producing PZEV Focus models that actually address this country's most pressing environmental concern--urban air quality--the U.S. government gives, to a comfortable few, tax breaks to buy Japanese-manufactured hybrids that reduce carbon dioxide, a nonpolluting gas not regulated in the United States!

As Walter McManus of J.D. Power & Associates told the Detroit Free Press this week, "The fuel savings [of hybrid cars like the Prius] are not worth the upfront additional cost [of $7,000 per vehicle]. You'd have to drive the car for 20 years for it to pay off."

Meanwhile, for just $115 more per vehicle, Americans can drive off the lot a PZEV Focus that produces a stunning one-tenth the emissions of a comparable internal combustion-powered vehicle. Ultra-green California rates it less polluting than an electric car.

Now that's a vehicle worthy of the title Car of the Year.

Henry Payne is a freelance writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.

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