Green groups go after Toyota

— -- Toyota, which has sold more than 1 million fuel-saving hybrid vehicles worldwide and accounts for 78% of hybrid sales in the USA, is under attack from environmental groups and at least one member of Congress for opposing tough fuel-economy legislation.

Toyota tm isn't used to this kind of attention. It's usually basking in favorable publicity for its vehicles' strong sales, their good reliability scores and the top fuel-economy rankings of its Prius hybrid.

The automaker points out that it supported a bill to boost mileage, just not as much as environmentalists want.

The fight is erupting now because Congress hopes to pass an energy bill before a recess it wants to take next month. Activists are backing a letter and e-mail campaign they hope will pressure Toyota into supporting the toughest standards.

"Our engineers tell us they don't know how" to meet the strictest proposed standards, says Martha Voss, the automaker's Washington, D.C., representative.

Toyota's U.S. headquarters has been hit with more than 8,000 e-mails, mainly from Natural Resources Defense Council members. The Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations also have begun urging members to deluge Toyota and Congress.

Because the messages are nearly identical, Toyota pays less attention than it would to individual notes from customers, but nevertheless, "We understand the message," spokesman Mike Michels says.

He says many have arrived via fax, "wasting paper; not very environmentally sound."

Toyota is in the bull's-eye despite its fuel-saving hybrids because it sided with Detroit automakers in favor of a House bill requiring the auto industry to average 32 miles per gallon by 2022. "Too little, too late," says David Friedman at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Contrast that with Nissan, which actively supported the 35 mpg (by 2020) in the Senate legislation."

That would cut U.S. petroleum use equivalent to all the oil imported from the Persian Gulf, says Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., sponsor of a bill to require 35 mpg by 2017.

"Toyota meets higher fuel-economy standards in Japan than they say we want them to meet here in 13 years. It's almost as if they're not going to make any improvements in 13 years," Markey says.

Toyota says its best seller in Japan is the Corolla, good for about 40 mpg there. But that's also among the biggest it sells in Japan.

"Camrys are almost unheard of (in Japan). And there is an entire class of 'kei' cars, minicars that make Smart cars look big," says Michels. Kei cars have motorcycle-size engines.

"At first glance it's, 'You can do this in other markets, why can't you do it here?' But paint a picture of what you'd be driving," he says.