WASHINGTON - With automakers cutting back production of large sport-utility vehicles and pickups, Sen. Norm Coleman sees a new lease on life for Ford's St. Paul plant that builds more fuel-efficient Rangers.

The Minnesota Republican called on the Ford Motor Co. Wednesday to reexamine its decision to close the plant in the Highland Park neighborhood, noting that Ranger pickup sales increased during the first five months of this year compared with the same period of 2007. The overall increase occurred despite a drop in May.

"Sales of the Ford Ranger are proving that folks want fuel-efficient vehicles," Coleman, a former St. Paul mayor, wrote in a letter to Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally. "The Ranger is one of the most cost-effective vehicles in its class, and it is my hope that Ford will reexamine the potential of this plant in light of increased demand."

Coleman's request, the latest in a series of entreaties from Minnesota civic leaders and politicians, comes as gas tops $4 a gallon in many U.S. markets. It also comes as the politics of global warming comes into full swing in the Senate, which is engaged in its most extensive debate to date on energy and climate-change legislation.

Ford, like other U.S. automakers, has been responding to record fuel prices by turning to more popular, fuel-efficient models.

The Ranger, which has been made at the Twin Cities plant since 1992, is rated at 21 miles per gallon city and 26 mpg highway by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While that's better than many large pickups, some experts say it's hardly the kind of mileage consumers are looking for today.

"The Ranger is really long in the tooth," said David Cole, chairman of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Michigan. "It is not a contemporary vehicle. Right now the market is really pushing hard for passenger cars and cross-over vehicles" such as sedans, minivans, light trucks or small SUVs.

Ford announced this week that sales of the Ranger had dropped in May, reversing months of strong sales. But company officials noted that last month's falloff could be the result of limited inventory.

The 138-acre Ford plant in St. Paul is scheduled to close in September 2009, a year later than originally planned.

Ford spokeswoman Angie Kozleski said Wednesday that the company "welcomes the interest," but that previously announced plans to close the plant have not changed. General Motors Corp. and Chrysler also have announced plans to close factories that build pickups and SUVs, and the Hummer brand reportedly is for sale.

Roger Terveen, president of United Auto Workers Local 879 at the St. Paul plant, said the union welcomes the latest effort to save the Ranger, even if it breaks no new ground. "There's no harm in trying," Terveen said. "We've told the company the Ranger gets good gas mileage, and that the big trucks aren't selling. So it makes good business sense to keep the plant open."

Coleman, running for reelection this year, also plans to make his pitch personally to Ford executives in Detroit.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat whose district includes St. Paul, said that Coleman's letter "raises hopes," but she questioned why he had not asked for bipartisan support.

Ford records show that Ranger sales dropped 24.7 percent last month, compared with May 2007. Overall, Ranger sales are up 2.3 percent over last year, but the long-term trend has not been good, with sales falling 20 percent in 2007 and 25 percent in 2006.

But with car buyers looking for smaller vehicles to weather spiking oil prices, Coleman sees a viable future for the Ranger and Ford's St. Paul workforce of nearly 1,000 assembly line workers.

The climate-change debate

Coleman's letter comes as the Senate starts debate concerning comprehensive climate-change legislation that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 65 percent in the next four decades.

Coleman, along with Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, is a cosponsor of the bill, which calls for mandatory emissions caps and incentives for companies to produce more energy-efficient products. Klobuchar also has sponsored a provision establishing a national registry of carbon emissions.

Opponents say the bill will lead to increased gasoline costs of as much as 53 cents a gallon. Deron Lovaas of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that the measure might lead to a slight increase, but that as carmakers home in on fuel-efficient vehicles, drivers would see an overall decrease in their yearly fuel expenses by 2020.

The bill includes funds directed at U.S. automakers to outfit their manufacturing lines for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Increased production of these vehicles would lead to more affordable prices, Lovaas said.

The bill is not likely to pass, but supporters are hopeful that the debate could set the stage for more-ambitious climate-change legislation next year, with a new president in the White House.

kdiaz@startribune.com • 202-408-2753 ekaiser@startribune.com • 202-408-2723