What They're Driving

The models each of the Big Three CEOs are cruising into Washington speaks volumes about whether they deserve a taxpayer bailout.

The CEOs of the Big Three automakers were blasted by US lawmakers last month for bringing their tin cups to Washington in corporate jets. They’ve learned their lesson in the value of political symbolism (oh, now around $35 billion). So for this trip to the capital, they’re traveling in hybrid cars, no doubt with the tin cups safely nestled in the cupholders, too.

But lawmakers would be well-advised to examine the symbolism of the specific vehicle models chosen by each CEO for his journey.

Nardelli’s only hybrid choice from the company garage is a canceled hybrid. That speaks volumes about the company’s ability to make good on federal funds.

Alan Mulally, Ford’s top executive, is making the trip in Ford Escape Hybrid—introduced in 2004 as the first hybrid gas-electric vehicle made by an American car company. With city fuel economy of 34 mpg, the Ford Escape remains the most fuel-efficient SUV available today. The company’s newest hybrid, the gas-electric Ford Fusion Hybrid, achieves 40 mpg on the highway—the exact target President-elect Obama would like to see for all cars by 2020.

When Mulally steps out of the greenest SUV available today—a vehicle that offers flexibility, sure-footedness, segment-leading fuel efficiency, and the best in advanced hybrid technology—lawmakers should see a capable CEO ready to lead his company and the American auto industry in a better direction.

Mulally is arriving in D.C. with a plan that includes rushing the launch of new hybrids and electric vehicles, as well as an agreement to cut his salary to $1 a year, to sell the company’s corporate jets, and to use $9 billion in federal funds only as an emergency line of credit—not just for life support.

Rick Wagoner, GM’s CEO, is traveling in a Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. GM has sold fewer than 3,000 units of the Chevy Malibu Hybrid since its introduction in January 2008. The low production numbers in the Malibu Hybrid—and the fact that the model uses a low-cost, mild form of hybrid that ekes out negligible fuel efficiency improvements—symbolize GM’s half-hearted attempts at making hybrids under Wagoner’s watch. Now, as the company makes big promises to Congress and moves on to its next green pet project—the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, which is not yet available for Wagoner’s drive to Washington—lawmakers should wonder if GM’s U-turn away from supersized vehicles and toward green technology is too little, too late.

GM says it needs the federal bailout to help it survive. The automaker plans to pare back its lineup of 112 models and 15 brands—including trying to sell Hummer—and is seeking to consolidate debt. Wagoner has also agreed to cut his salary to $1 a year and sell the company jets.

Robert Nardelli, chief executive of Chrysler, is in on the salary cut, too. He was late to the hybrid caravan to Washington but he’s now along for the ride. Chrysler, however, has not specified the model he’ll take. The automaker’s only hybrids, the Dodge Durango Hybrid and Chrysler Aspen Hybrid, are a pair of hemi-engine V8 hybrids that don’t quite manage an average of 20 mpg. These monster hybrids were put into production this fall, but will go out of production this month when Chrysler shutters its Newark, Del., assembly plant. That’s right: Nardelli’s only hybrid choices from the company garage are canceled hybrids—arriving in showrooms for the first time only weeks before they die for good.

Chrysler is holding on by a thread and seeks a $7 billion bridge loan by December 31 to stabilize the company until it can be merged with another automaker. The company is also promising hybrids and electric cars in the coming years. But the fact that Nardelli will be driving to Congress in Chrysler’s only hybrid, a canceled model, speaks volumes about the company’s ability to make good on federal funds.

America is a car culture. Like it or not, what we drive says a lot about who we are. For the CEOs of the Big Three and the lawmakers deciding their fate, that’s never been truer.

RELATED: Michael Moore: Let's Buy the Big Three

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Bradley Berman is the editor of HybridCars.com and writes about hybrids for BusinessWeek, The New York Times, and other publications.