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Swung for a Lupo

VW's most fuel-efficient car isn't available in the U.S.

By Joy Lanzendorfer

Since you've probably never seen a Volkswagen Lupo, let me describe it to you. For one thing, it's cute. It's not quite as cute as a VW Beetle, but still pretty darn adorable for a car. It weighs less than a ton, great for weaving in and out of traffic. Though it's not the fastest car on the road, it can go from zero to 62 mph in 8.3 seconds, according to the British VW website. It's a marvel of engineering with a three-cylinder, 1.2-liter diesel engine. And if you wanted to, you could grow your own fuel to run it.

Best of all, the Lupo has gotten up to 99 miles per gallon in test drives, though in normal driving situations, it may be closer to 78 miles per gallon. It has been called the most fuel-efficient car in the world.

But VW has no plans to sell the Lupo in the United States. The company believes there is no market for fuel-efficient cars in our SUV-populated country.

Local programmer Saill White started an online petition to change VW's mind about the car. White commutes from Oakland to her job in Petaluma. Though she's happy with her 1993 VW Passat, she has been looking for a newer, more efficient car. She heard about the Lupo from colleagues.

"I saw it online and thought, 'Oh, this is what I want!'" she says. "But when I called Volkswagen America to ask when the Lupo would be available here, they said they aren't going to sell it in the United States. After some pleading and whining on my part, they suggested I petition it."

In June, White launched a website (www.lupousa.com) with an online petition asking people to sign if they want VW to sell the Lupo here. White sent the first batch of 500 signatures to Volkswagen a little over a month later. As of this writing, the petition has nearly 700 signatures.

Volkswagen told White they have given the petition to marketing and will get back to her. In the meantime, White plans to continue gathering signatures and will send the company a batch every 500 names or so.

Though there are a number of reasons why VW doesn't sell the Lupo here, the main concern seems to be that the market isn't big enough to justify the cost of meeting U.S. safety standards.

But White believes she's part of an untapped niche looking for cars like the Lupo.

"I really thought about the market a lot," she says. "And I don't think it's true there is no market here, though I think it may be kind of hidden. There are a lot of people like me who are concerned with fuel-efficiency and having a 'green' car, but aren't as concerned about price."

There are reasons to wonder if the Lupo would do well in the United States. Some reviews of the car say its lightweight frame makes for a loud and bumpy ride. Other reviewers say it's slow to accelerate though able to maintain speed well. And the small size of the car may turn some people off, especially at $13,000 to $14,000.

But despite the downsides, word of mouth seems to be spreading.

"We've had quite a few people ask about the Lupo," says Jason Smith, a sales consultant for Prestige Imports in Santa Rosa. "I think the market would be perfect for it. I really think the Lupo could compete with other cars in its class."

The Lupo would also encounter difficulties coming into California. In 2006, California will restrict the import of diesel engines to cut down the pollution caused by high-sulfur diesel.

The irony is that such laws could keep environmentally friendly cars like the Lupo out. Since the Lupo uses far less gas, it gives off less pollution than other cars.

The Lupo could also use low-sulfur diesel, which sells for about $2 a gallon, and biodiesel vegetable oil that has been treated to have the same viscosity as diesel. Biodiesel is 100 percent renewable, doesn't pollute, and is good for most cars, though using it may void some warranties. You can even make biodiesel yourself using waste oil from restaurants, according to Lindsay Hassett of the Sonoma County Biodiesel Co-op.

"Diesel engines have been getting a lot of bad press for pollution," Hassett says. "Because of that, I believe the Lupo would have a tough time coming to California."

At this point, VW has not said how many signatures it needs before it considers marketing the Lupo here.

"I have no idea how many they want," says White. "But 700 seems like a good start."

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From the August 21-27, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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