DETROIT (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, facing Republican criticism over the state of the economy, did a Detroit victory lap on Wednesday to showcase the auto companies his administration helped save, but the industry has not turned out the way he hoped in 2009.
Obama has held out his bailout of General Motors (GM.N) and Chrysler during the U.S. recession as examples of tough decisions he made that paid off both for the economy and the environment.
"The auto industry here in the United States has figured out that we can make more fuel-efficient cars that reduce the carbon pollution that is causing climate change, and make a profit - and put more people to work," Obama told a crowd at a United Auto Workers Union center for workers at GM.
But car companies are still churning out gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles to meet consumer demand, going against Obama's hope that higher fuel-economy models would win the day.
Sales of SUVs rose 16 percent in 2015, while car sales fell 2 percent. Although new SUVs are more efficient than prior models, they still burn more gasoline than cars.
About 59 percent of U.S. vehicle sales last year were sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks or other big vehicles, up from 54 percent in 2014.
Low gas prices have boosted the trend. A Ford Motor Co (F.N) plant in Michigan that Obama visited a year ago is ending production of small cars in 2018 and is expected to switch to SUVs to help meet soaring demand.
The White House noted the industry was on track to double fuel efficiency and cut emissions by half by 2025.
During a stop at the North American International Auto Show, Obama sought to give a push to electric cars.
Obama joked that he was in town to browse for a new car himself because he had to give up his limo, affectionately known as "The Beast," when he leaves office next year.
He sat in the driver's seat of a 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, an all-electric car the White House said could travel about 200 miles (320 km) on a single charge. The president declared it a nice-looking car.
Electric vehicle sales fell last year by 6 percent to 115,000, and the administration has said it would not meet its goal of getting 1 million plug-in cars on U.S. roads by 2015. To date, about 400,000 electric vehicles have been sold.
Without naming names, the president pounded Republicans for opposing the bailout and trying to outdo each other by "peddling fiction" about the state of the U.S. economy.
"When one says our economy is terrible, the next says it's terrible, and on fire, and covered in bees!" he said.
"These are the same folks who would have let this industry go under," he said.
Obama's visit to Detroit did not include a stop in nearby Flint, which is in the throes of a water contamination crisis that has forced the state's Republican governor to apologize.
Obama pledged his support to the community. "If I were a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kid's health could be at risk," he said.
Additional reporting by David Shepardson, Roberta Rampton and Ayesha Rascoe in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney, Bernard Orr