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When it comes to clean, high-mileage cars, U.S. automakers have not always been in the forefront. They have been outdone by the Japanese and have repeatedly failed to meet fleet mileage standards set by the federal government. Yet these same automakers have a point when they fear the government might push them into building alternative-fuel cars before the technology is ready.

Alternative-fuel cars are defined as vehicles capable of operating on a mixture of methanol and gasoline, 100 percent methanol, compressed natural gas or electricity.The Clean Air Act is being debated in Congress. One version was passed by the Senate and the House is working on its version, which is scheduled to come to the floor of that chamber on Wednesday. Both bills contain programs the automakers can accept.

They require that cars and trucks sold in the nine smoggiest U.S. cities be capable of operating on clean fuels such as low-polluting reformulated gasoline. Centrally-fueled car fleets would be required to purchase alternative-fuel vehicles, if available.

The House will consider amendments to the proposed law in mid-May, and this is where objections arise. Some in Congress want the legislation changed to require the production and sale of alternative-fuel cars in the smoggiest cities by the mid-1990s.

The Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association has some persuasive arguments against mandating such cars and their purchase by consumers. They include such basic concerns as vehicle cost, performance and even the availability of alternative fuels.

The mileage from some of these fuels is so low that driving ranges are half what would be obtained from a tank of conventional gasoline. In addition, there are problems with starting in cold weather.

It's not as if automakers are against alternative fuels. They have testing programs going. But mandating such cars for the marketplace is full of problems. Congress cannot just wave its hands and, presto, new kinds of cars and the fuel to run them suddenly appear out of nowhere.

The answer to environmental problems isn't going to be as easy as calling forth a genie out of a bottle. Years of research, tests and the development of a distribution system are required. One cannot drive into any service station and fill up with a tank of methanol.

If Congress forces an alternative-fuel program on automakers and the public, the first such cars may be expensive. They may have problems and prove to be less-than-reliable at first. Such experiences could make consumers cool toward alternative-fuel cars. When more reliable models come along later, it could be hard to overcome the early public relations and sales disasters.

Polls show 83 percent of potential car buyers would hesitate to purchase an alternative-fuels car until the bugs are worked out. Another 72 percent would hesitate if prices were higher than regular vehicles.

Congress cannot order private industry to build a product that people are not going to buy. That is the kind of folly associated with the Soviet Union's government-run economy - which is in a state of collapse.

A better approach is for Congress to reject any mandated production and sale of alternative fuel cars until automakers can demonstrate a successful model. Premature federal mandates could badly damage the whole program.