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Published Sep. 11, 2009

I could be one of those bores who comes back from France and raves about the food - delicious slabs of foie gras on sale at farmer's markets for bargain prices, baguettes that are everyday works of art, and crisp little apples that have more flavor than entire produce sections of some American supermarkets.

... or who lectures about the environmental conscience of a country where hanging clothes on a line on a sunny day is considered sensible rather than trashy, where everybody brings their own bags to supermarkets and just about every scrap of waste is recycled and sorted mechanically.

... or who tells about families who sit together for hours at dinner time without a television in sight and store owners who blow away the French reputation for arrogance by listening patiently to the bumbling attempts of tourists like me to ask for a bottle of water.

But I'm not going to talk about any of this, or the tired idea that France just plain does life better than the United States - at least not anymore than I already have. No, I'm going to talk about the car my wife and I rented during our recent vacation, the diesel Ford C-Max.

It was peppier than my gas-burning Ford Focus station wagon, its closest American cousin, nearly as roomy, and agile enough to get us into the driveway of the house we rented on an ancient, narrow street, which was about like driving down a hall and pulling into a bathroom.

Most amazingly, we drove it for 11 days, including the roughly 100 miles to and from the Bordeaux airport and kept waiting for the needle on the fuel gauge to come unglued from the "F'' position.

It eventually did, of course, but we filled the tank just once, for the equivalent of $68. I later learned that the number of highway miles the 1.6-liter C-Max can travel on a gallon of fuel (59) dwarfs that of my supposedly economical 2003 Focus (32), and that its combined city/highway rating of 50 miles per gallon precisely doubles the 25 mpg average of the current U.S. automotive fleet.

So on to the obvious question, especially considering I was driving the product of an American car company: Why can't I buy one here?

It blows away the fuel-consumption performance of the current favorite of environmentally conscious buyers, the Toyota Prius, at least on the highway, and could presumably capture a share of this market for a struggling American corporation.

A nation of C-Maxes would no longer be at the mercy of oil-rich thugs such as Muammar Gaddafi and Hugo Chavez and wouldn't have to consider putting oil rigs just off the Florida coast.

Car experts I talked to about this pointed to a familiar culprit - a massive, inefficient and somewhat clueless auto company.

"I put it down strictly to incompetence at Ford,'' said Mark Gillies, executive editor of Car and Driver magazine.

As is the case with General Motors, Ford's overseas divisions have long operated almost as separate companies. Though Ford's "best cars have all been done in Europe,'' Gillies said, the company hasn't been able to coordinate the building and marketing of the same vehicles in the United States.

Predictably, though, the situation is not quite that simple. As with the nuclear energy that provides about 80 percent of France's electricity, diesel requires economic and environmental trade-offs.

European countries, concerned with keeping fuel consumption low, have encouraged the use of diesel by taxing it less and being more forgiving of its smoky exhaust, Gillies said.

In the United States, where smog is a major concern, emission standards have been so stringent that, until recent technological improvements came along, it was nearly impossible to build affordable cars that were clean enough to comply.

Historically, the relatively cheap price of fuel in the United States didn't justify the added cost of diesel engines - about $2,000 for a compact car, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

And Cole foresees a day, not too long from now, when the United States will be using agricultural waste such as corn stalks to make cheap ethanol. This is an excellent replacement for gasoline, he said, but "a horrible diesel fuel.''

Still, diesel engines are getting cheaper and more efficient all the time, said Michael Omotoso, director of automobile analysis for J.D. Power and Associates. The new ones, he said, are clean enough to overcome the Toyota marketing campaigns that promoted "hybrids as the only green alternative'' and memories of the black clouds emitted by old-line diesel Volkswagens and Mercedes.

"There's still a prejudice among some consumers against diesels because they remember how bad they were in the '70s and '80s,'' Omotoso said.

BMW and Mercedes both plan to grab a larger share of the diesel market in the United States. Volkswagen's diesel Jettas, which were pulled from the market less than three years ago because they couldn't comply with U.S. emission standards, now account for a third of the model's sales here, Omotoso said.

He also recently spotted what appeared to be a C-Max prototype, disguised with panels of black plastic, touring the streets near Detroit. His company estimates it will be on the market here by 2012.

Then on to our nation's next big challenge: apples that taste like apples.