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New standards hitting the showroom

Sun., June 29, 2008

OLYMPIA – Shopping far and wide for a shiny new truck or gas-sipping sedan? There’s something important you should know.

Starting with the 2009 model year, new cars sold in Washington must meet strict California emission standards. Buy a car that doesn’t and you’re in for a shock: You won’t be able to register it in Washington.

“It’s going to make for better air and the vehicles will operate more efficiently,” said Seth Preston, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology.

Washington lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire approved tighter vehicle pollution standards in 2005, over the objections of many car dealers. The law is just now taking effect, and without the most controversial part: new limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. Federal officials have suspended that, prompting a lawsuit by the affected states.

State Sen. Chris Marr – a car dealer at the time – was one of the few dealers willing to publicly support the change in 2005. A year later, the Spokane Democrat became a state lawmaker.

California, Oregon and at least 14 other states have adopted California-style auto standards, according to the Department of Ecology.

Idaho hasn’t, and state officials say it will be up to Washington consumers to ensure they’re getting the right kind of car. The vehicles are commonly known as “California cars” or “50-state cars.”

“They’re going to have to really be careful about making sure cars they purchase meet the new standards,” said Brad Benfield, a spokesman for Washington’s Department of Licensing. Idaho auto dealers who have a lot of Washington customers “will probably choose to offer those types of cars, but they’re not going to have to.”

Washington officials are particularly worried about future years, as 2009 and later cars are bought and sold as used cars among private parties. Benfield said licensing officials can tell from the vehicle identification number and sometimes from the title whether a car meets California standards.

The law only applies to Washington residents, Benfield said. People who move here from another state with a car that doesn’t comply will still be able to register it here.

Managers at several North Idaho new car dealerships said they don’t expect problems getting the right vehicles for their Washington customers.

“We’re coming into the time to order the ‘09s, and it’s just another click of the button to have a certain smog thing on the cars,” said Kevin Garrett, sales manager at Coeur d’Alene’s Robideaux Motors. He estimates that a quarter or more of the company’s customers are from Washington. For most cars, he said, 2009 model year vehicles will arrive in late August or September. In a few cases, they’re already here: He has a 2009 Pontiac Vibe on the lot now.

Jim Addis, general manager of Coeur d’Alene’s Tom Addis Dodge and Lake City Ford Lincoln Mercury, said he’ll stock only cars that meet California standards.

“It doesn’t cost me any more,” he said, “and then our customers can’t have any conceivable problem.”

Some brands already meet the standard, no matter where they’re sold.

“Honda’s already compliant,” said Ray Agnew, sales manger at Downtown Honda in Spokane. “They’re all 50-state cars.”

The additional anti-pollution measures are likely to add $15 to $200 to the price of a car, said Preston, of the Department of Ecology.

Even without the greenhouse gas rules, Preston said, the new law will cut down on pollutants such as carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde and fine particles coming out of tailpipes.

A lawyer for the Washington State Auto Dealers Association said the law also sets standards for average emissions for each manufacturer, which could affect the mix of vehicles being sold in Washington. For example, it could become harder for customers to find larger vehicles and trucks, said Brian Imai, general counsel of the association.

But with gas so expensive – regular now averages nearly $4.40 a gallon in most of Western Washington and $4.08 in Spokane, according to AAA – Agnew said the standard may not be difficult to meet. Sales of vehicles with four-cylinder engines have skyrocketed nationwide in recent months, he said.

“Selling small cars isn’t going to be a problem,” he said.

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