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Would you pay more for a greener car?

Some automotive industry executives insist that Americans still won't pay for significantly higher fuel economy. Are they right?

Consumers won't pay more for cars that would meet new, stricter emissions standards.

That was the message sent last week by Susan Docherty, Western Region general manager of General Motors, as a handful of automotive journalists (including yours truly) sat scattered at a very large table in a private room in the back of one of Santa Monica's poshest hotel restaurants during a GM-sponsored holiday dinner.

The proclamation erupted out of a somewhat heated debate with one of the print journalists at the table, sparked in part by news that a U.S. District Judge had dismissed a lawsuit filed by automakers over a California law that would require car manufacturers to reduce new car emissions over the next several years.

The statement was especially curious coming from someone who had worked for one of the most expensive automotive brands in the U.S. Prior to her previous position, Docherty worked as head of marketing and sales for Hummer. According to her biography, her launch of the H3 increased Hummer's sales by more than 70 percent. If there are obviously plenty of people who will pay more than $30,000 for SUVs that get 13 miles per gallon in the city, why wouldn't there be a market for a $30,000 midsize car that gets 40 miles per gallon (or better)?

Some of us aren't so quick to underestimate the increasing savvy of the American consumer. While there are still people who will buy the biggest vehicles they can afford without regard to long-term consequences, the average car buyer is getting smarter. Even putting questions of social responsibility aside, basic economics tell us that the financial implication of buying a car goes far beyond the sticker price; it's about the overall cost of ownership. And we think you get that.

What do you think?