October 30, 2002 11:00 pm

If a case needs to be made for a war on Iraq, Americans need only look at their own fuel consumption patterns. The fuel economy ratings of America's auto fleet is going backwards. If the trend continues, America will need an extra fueling station in the Middle East.

The government released its fuel economy ratings this week. The news reflects a buying public that's not especially concerned with the mileage their vehicles get, although another study shows that Oregon is bucking that trend. For the third consecutive year, the average fuel economy of the vehicles Americans drive stands about 6 percent below the high point set 15 years ago. That means we're buying more cars that get worse mileage. The automakers, understandably, are happy to oblige us.

Calls for higher fuel economy standards have fallen on deaf ears in Congress. Fuel-economy standards were set by Congress in 1975. Only 33 of the 934 cars, trucks and vans listed in the fuel-economy ratings for 2003 get 30 mpg or more. Last year there were 48 out of 865 that hit the 30 mpg mark.

Average fuel economy for the 488 cars for 2003 is 23.6 mpg. The average for 2002 models was 23.9; for the 2001 models it was 24.2. The light truck category shows a similar decline, from 17.6 mpg for 2003 models and 17.9 mpg for 2002, although the 2001 models were slightly lower at 17.3 mpg.

Amazing, isn't it, how far we've come — or not.

"With gas prices at historic lows, the cost of fuel is not as important as many other vehicles characteristics such as the utility of the vehicle, how many passengers they can carry, cargo and towing and safety features,'' said Ron DeFore, spokesman for the group that lobbies against government fuel-economy rules, Coalition for Vehicle Choice.

IN SPITE OF the overall decline in fuel efficiency, there are some alternatives for people who want to save fuel. The hybrid Honda Insight comes in at 64 mpg combined city and highway driving, while the hybrid Toyota Prius and the new hybrid Honda Civic come in at 48 mpg. Compact cars are averaging 26.1 mpg, small wagons 24.6 mpg and subcompacts 23.3. On the other end of the spectrum, cargo and passenger vans average 15.7 mpg, pickup trucks average 17.1 mpg and SUVs average 17.3 mpg.

The biggest guzzlers? Don't worry, they're not in most Americans' price range. The Lamborghini L-147 Murcielago comes in No. 1 at 10 mpg, followed by the Ferrari 456 MGT/MGTA automatic at 12 mpg. People who can afford them probably don't have to think much about the price of gas, though oil supply might be a concern.

Times aren't what they were 15 years ago.