Should Feds Shift Gears on Imports?

By Peters, Eric | Insight on the News, May 11, 1998 | Go to article overview

Should Feds Shift Gears on Imports?


Peters, Eric, Insight on the News


Americans can't buy the stick-shift version of the Mercedes-Benz SLK Roadster. Nor the manual model of GM's Cadillac Catera. Critics say arbitrary government regulations are limiting consumer choice.

Consider the Cadillac Catera. This four-door sedan, based on the Opel Omega, is manufactured abroad but marketed in the United States as a youthful luxury/sports sedan. The Catera differs from its continental sister in trim level, suspension tuning and, of course, price. Otherwise, the two cars are identical.

But European buyers can choose between a manual and automatic transmission, while American buyers must settle for an automatic transmission--an ironic circumstance since the very people Cadillac is hoping to reach are precisely those who prefer stick-shift transmissions.

Why, then, does GM not import the stick-shift version of the Catera/Omega to the United States? The answer, in an acronym, is FETP: bureaucratese for federal emissions test protocol.

FETP is a series of emissions-control tests that all new cars must pass before they may be sold in this country. Smog certification is mandatory regardless of whether a car has passed the European protocol.

Even by government standards, say critics, FETP is an arbitrary and stupid hit of red tape. European tailpipe-emissions standards are more stringent than U.S. standards. Europe has been ahead of the United States in the quest for "clean air," with European Union Common Market nations such as Germany and France imposing draconian limits on the amount of pollution an automobile may spew.

Nevertheless, because European testing differs from American testing in methodology (but not object or eventual result), automakers must go through the entire dog-and-pony show a second time for the benefit of Environmental Protection Agency regulators if they wish to bring European models to the states.

Actually, the rules are more complicated than this. The Environmental Protection Agency (which oversees FETP) requires that each specific variation of a new car model must undergo testing before certification. If a given model is available with more than one engine/transmission type, each drive-train combination must pass muster.

In the case of the Catera (and other models such as the Mercedes-Benz SLK), manufacturers must certify both the automatic and manual versions of the same car. The more drive-train choices available to consumers, the more headaches for automakers.

The extra cost of the certification process is bad enough; worse is the time-to-market delay. A six-month lag in getting a redesigned vehicle to showrooms can be the kiss of death--if another competitor gets there first --and could cost automakers millions in research-and-development, tooling, marketing and personnel costs.

FETP is especially hard on stick-shift cars. Engine speed between gear changes drops rapidly and then picks up again in a car with a manual transmission. This "loading" and "unloading" of the engine affects emissions levels, often for the worse. In comparison, an automatic-equipped car can be finely tuned for optimum efficiency and lowest emissions, a task made infinitely easier by the engine's computer. …

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