Hamburg - The European car industry is under growing pressure for failing to comply even remotely with a self-imposed ceiling on carbon dioxide emissions.
The German eco group (DUH) early this month said it would start blacklisting fuel guzzlers and pointed out that in Germany alone, new car emissions stood last year at 172 grammes of CO2 per kilometre, well above the 140 g target for 2008 the car industry set itself in a commitment to the European Commission.
Green party politician Renate Kuenast earlier this year triggered a storm of protest when she called on consumers to boycott German cars and instead to buy the Japanese Toyota Prius hybrid - a car listed with a C02 emission of only 104 g.
Even more controversial however have been calls from several quarters to impose a strict speed limit on German motorways, regarded by many drivers of high-powered Porsches, Audis, BMW and Mercedes as one of their last freedoms.
'The German motorist will have to get used to the idea that a speed limit on motorways is a meaningful way of helping the climate,' said the head of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner, adding that 'freedom should not be defined by whether I can drive on the autobahn at 200 km/h or not'.
Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee reacted by pointing out that only between 2 and 3 per cent of German motorways still allowed a speed of over 100 km/h and that cars would in future be taxed according to the amount of CO2 spewed into the atmosphere.
The powerful German car industry was caught off guard by the emotional tone of the climate debate with the new president of the Car Industry Federation (VDA) Matthias Wissmann vowing to improve the industry's environmental image. His predecessor, Bernd Gottschalk, resigned after heading the organisation for 11 years amid accusations that he had failed to address sufficiently 'the environmental aspect'.
Meanwhile some car makers have been making big strides in improving fuel consumption with new engine management technology, weight reduction and aerodynamics.
BMW says that its new 118d model has a fuel consumption figure of only 4.7 litres of diesel with CO2 emission at 123 g, made possible largely by a start-stop function. The engine switches itself off automatically at traffic lights and in traffic jams as soon as the driver puts the gear into neutral and takes the foot off the clutch. A diesel particulate filter fitted as standard removes 99 per cent of the soot, according to the car maker.
Mercedes unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show the Vision C 220 Bluetec with an output of 125 kW/170 hp and a consumption of 5.5 litres of diesel thus complying with the strict EURO 6 emission standards valid for all new cars from the year 2015.
The new VW Polo BlueMotion with a consumption of 3.9 litres and CO2 emission of 105,3 g - in the range of the Prius hybrid.
But even the Prius is only economical when driven with a light foot. The CO2 emission figure shoots up to 278g when driven hard on the motorway, the Auto Bild newspaper found in its 100,000 kilometre duration test.
Volkswagen's research chief Ulrich Hackenberg also says the greatest potential in fuel saving is by improving driving habits such as improved gear changing.
Car parts supplier Delphi spokesman Michael Neumann says air conditioners guzzle between 10 and 15 per cent of fuel. C02 savings of between four and six grammes per kilometre can be achieved by improved cooling modules and weight reduction, he says.
But car marketing analyst Nick Margetts of Jato Dynamics says first of all there has to be a change of mind among consumers. 'If you buy a car with more power and more weight you should not be surprised by having to frequent the filling station more often'.