updated 10/4/2007 12:20:46 PM ET 2007-10-04T16:20:46

Never mind that the Toyota Prius is popular with environmentally conscious motorists — some environmentalists still wonder if Toyota is living up to its image as a green automaker.

Environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, are challenging Toyota Motor Corp.’s opposition to strict fuel economy standards pending in Congress, a position the Japanese company shares with General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC.

During the past two weeks, about 8,300 NRDC activists sent e-mails and faxes to Toyota urging the company to support a Senate energy bill that would set a 35-mile-per-gallon requirement by 2020.

Other environmental groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Environmental Trust, are mobilizing to challenge Toyota for supporting a more modest approach on so-called CAFE standards that would require 32 to 35 mpg by 2022.

“They have a green halo, justifiably, and yet unbeknownst to their customers they’ve joined forces with the Detroit Three to argue against greener standards,” said Deron Lovaas, the NRDC’s vehicles campaign director.

Toyota contends the Senate bill would hurt the industry and notes that the alternative still would raise the standards up to 40 percent and give automakers more time to meet the goals. The company said it would respond to the messages it receives.

“For the first time, the industry has actually come together for a fuel economy increase, and everyone is pulling together in the same direction,” Toyota spokeswoman Martha Voss said Wednesday. “Toyota is working very hard behind the scenes to achieve the best standards possible, not only for the whole industry, but to meet the energy and environmental goals that we all share.”

Toyota, along with Honda Motor Co., has been a front-runner in producing fuel-efficient vehicles while emphasizing its hybrid technology. In addition to the popular gas-electric hybrid Prius, Toyota offers several hybrid models, including the hybrid Camry and hybrid Lexus models.

But the campaign underscores some discontent with the company in the environmental community, many of whom drive Prius hybrids. Toyota is challenging GM as the world’s biggest automaker and has aggressively promoted the Tundra pickup in the lucrative large truck segment.

“They market every night the Prius and the Toyota Camry — we’re the green car, huh? Then watch the football games, and they’re marketing the Toyota Tundra — like the biggest vehicle ever made,” Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a Camry hybrid owner, said Wednesday in a speech at an environmental conference.

“We’re actually going to name the vehicle the Tundra, after the thing that’s being destroyed in Alaska,” he said. “How ironic.”

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