Auto Outlook: GM’s bailout fuels automotive politics

By AL SWANSON, United Press International  |  June 10, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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Who would have predicted it? The government's bailout of General Motors has become a hot political issue in the run up to the fall presidential election.

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who opposed federal loans to GM and Chrysler, said he'd sell the Treasury's 26 percent stake in GM quickly if he wins office in November.

"There is no reason for the government to continue to hold (GM shares), said Romney, son of late Michigan Gov. George Romney. The elder Romney ran American Motors Corp. in the late 1950s and early '60s before entering politics.

Romney's dad also made a run for the GOP presidential nomination in 1968 and served as Richard Nixon's first secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Romney said the only reason the government is holding on to its GM shares is to avoid an embarrassing news story about another loss. But last month an assistant Treasury secretary told The Detroit News there was no timetable for selling the GM stock because the administration had to "balance maximizing recovery for the taxpayers with the speed of exit."

Treasury has never planned to remain in the auto business, but with GM shares trading at $21.85 on Friday the government would lose about $16 billion if it sold its shares now.

Taxpayers pumped $49.5 billion into GM to save the company and hundreds of thousands of jobs around time Romney wrote a 2008 op-ed piece The New York Times titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

In fairness to Romney, his title of his guest editorial was "The Way Forward for the Auto Industry." A Times editor changed the headline but the piece itself was not changed.

"My own view is that the auto companies needed to go through bankruptcy before government help," Romney said during an interview with WEWS-TV, Cleveland, after an Ohio campaign event in May. "And frankly, that's finally what the president did. He finally took them through bankruptcy."

Facing one of the worst economic meltdowns in U.S. history, with capital credit markets contracting and some financial institutions on the verge of collapse, the government provided financing to help GM and Chrysler. The Bush administration wrote the first checks.

Chrysler has since repaid its government loans and is now posting record sales, making Romney's recent bid to take credit for the industry's rebound a pretty hard sell.

"The last time Governor Romney weighed in on the future of the auto industry, it was to suggest we let Detroit go bankrupt, a betrayal no Michigander is likely to forget," Obama campaign spokesman Matt McGrath told The Detroit News. "As someone who was dead wrong about the industry's present, Mitt Romney is the last person who should be offering advice about its future."

Romney accused Democrats of "distorting" his position.

"If they needed help coming out of bankruptcy and government support, that was fine, but I was not in favor of the government writing billions of dollars in checks prior to them going into bankruptcy," Romney said .

Romney also said he wants to end federal loans and guarantees to help private companies develop alternative energy.

"The government is now picking winners and losers -- or in the case of this president -- it's picking losers and private sector does a much better job," Romney said in a Detroit News interview.

"The reality is that Solyndra [a bankrupt solar panel maker in California] received [$535 million] funding through a Department of Energy program created [by Congress] under the Bush Administration -- a program that has supported tens of thousands of jobs across the country and is moving forward with investments in innovative projects like the first nuclear plant built in the U.S. in decades and the world's largest wind farm," an Obama campaign spokeswoman told the News.

Ford's new F-150

Ford's top-selling U.S. vehicle, the full-size F-150 pickup, is getting a facelift.

Ford used a Texas meeting of the Future Farmers of America to introduce the 2013 F-150, which looks good hauling cargo or taking the family around town. The refreshed F-150 sports a beefier grill, optional high-intensity headlamps and the latest MyFordTouch voice navigation, entertainment and climate controls.

"Farm families have always represented an important F-Series truck constituency," said Ford Truck marketing manager Doug Scott. "For these multitasking customers, a Ford pickup means family transportation, economic livelihood, rugged capability and reliability."

There will even be a luxury-oriented F-150 Limited.

Full-size trucks make up about 10 percent of all vehicles sold in the United States and Ford will face tough competition from the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, which are both being redesigned for 2013, and the new V6 Dodge Ram.

Honda Fit EV electric mileage champion

The all-electric Mitsubishi i EV, which gets the impressive electrical equivalent of 112 miles per gallon, has been dethroned by the new Honda Fit EV.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- in its latest fuel efficiency ratings -- estimates the plug-in 2013 electric Fit EV gets 118 MPGe. MPGe is the EPA's mile-per-gallon equivalency rating for electric vehicles.

A front-wheel drive Fit EV has a 20 kilowatt lithium-ion battery pack powering a 92 kilowatt electric motor producing 123 horsepower and 188 foot-pounds of torque.

The five-passenger Fit EV can go as many as 82 miles on a single charge in combined city/highway driving, better than the all-electric Nissan Leaf's 73 miles per charge combined range and the Mitsubishi i's 62 miles per charge.

The plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt can go 35 miles on electric power before its gasoline engine takes over to recharge the battery for the next 250 miles. Minor battery changes will boost that to 38 miles on electric power in 2013 models. GM says it sold more than 7,000 Volts from January through May, nearly as many as it sold in all of last year.

Nissan sold 2,613 Leafs through May.

The EPA estimates it would cost about $500 a year to power the Fit EV and Honda said its batteries can be recharged in as little as three hours when connected to a 240-watt charging station.

With a manufacturers' suggested retail price of $36,625, Honda said the Fit EV will be available for lease for $399 a month this year in California and Oregon. A wider roll-out is expected next year.

In other gas-sipper news, Consumer Reports recently drove a Honda Civic HF, the Chevrolet Cruze Eco and the Ford Focus SFE, and concluded small cars with special "eco" packages don't improve mileage enough to justify the added expense.

An "eco" vehicle has special systems, like low-rolling resistance tires, to maximize fuel economy and can cost $500 to $800 more than its conventional gasoline engine sibling. Consumer Reports said a Focus SFE would save owners about $145 in gas a year over a standard Focus, the Civic HF $135 annually over a conventional Civic, and the Cruze Eco, just $20 a year in fuel.

The consumer magazine praised the $20,850 Toyota Prius C subcompact hybrid's 43 mpg combined fuel economy and its parking ease, but panned the C's stiff ride, steering, hard plastic interior, rear visibility, and wind and road noise.

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