The 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit puts to rest once and for all any questions about whether electricity will be integral to the vehicle powertrains of tomorrow. A sampling of this year’s Detroit announcements reveals different directions depending on whose electric navigation screen you’re viewing at any given moment.
General Motors: Volt and Converj
Motown’s home-towners have been signaling electric directions for several years now. General Motors continued the drumbeat for the Chevy Volt. Last week GM announced that it had built its first lithium ion battery pack at a special battery assembly plant located downriver from Detroit. On the eve of the Detroit show, GM Vice Chairman announced that the Cadillac Converj, a sporty luxury plug-in hybrid coupe, will go into production around 2013.
Ford: Full Spectrum of Hybrid to Electric
The real hit was the news that the Ford Fusion Hybrid won the 2010 Car of the Year award. The company also reiterated its plans for a battery-powered Focus, which in its new gasoline engine guise was Ford’s top-billed new product at the show. Ford’s electrification plans also feature home-state investments, with announcements that the Focus zero-emissions vehicle along with its plug-in models and next-generation plug-free hybrids and key components will be built in Michigan. Noting that he had been an efficiency advocate for many years, Chairman Bill Ford stated how he’s “now pleased to be preaching to the choir.”
Volkswagen: Electric Along with Diesel
What really underscores the industry’s unanimity on electrification is Volkswagen’s New Compact Coupe (NCC) concept, which mates a hybrid powertrain to their TSI gasoline engine. The vehicle is a veritable advanced technology showcase, with a hybrid system backed by a lithium battery and its turbocharged, direct-injection engine backed by a 7-speed direct-shift gearbox. The NCC concept promises 45 mpg in combined city-highway driving and an 8.1 second zero-to-sixty time. When the denizens of diesel amp up their electric strategy, you’ve got to know it’s here to stay.
BMW: Small and Electric
Any further amplification that might have been needed is provided by the next step in BMW’s electrification plan. Also coming from diesel-loving Deutschland, the Active E will be an all-electric version of the BMW 1 Series and is destined for a limited test market next year. With the lithium battery modules distributed under the front hood, center tunnel and where a gas tank might have been, the design carries ample capacity for its promised 100-mile real-world range without any impact on passenger space. The one compromise is a bulge covering the power electronics that intrudes in the hatchback area behind the rear seats. Although the Active E itself will not go into full production, BMW emphasized that it’s the next milepost along the way to their future purpose-built, all-electric Mega City Vehicle.
Nissan: Full Speed Ahead
The Nissan Leaf, the only car that Nissan brought to Detroit, helped anchor the show’s “Electric Avenue,” a collection of electric-drive hopefuls situated along a back wall of Cobo Hall. The exhibit featured offerings from several EV startups, including several Automotive X-Prize contenders along with some more established efforts such as Mitsubishi’s iMiEV. Tesla, on the other hand, earned itself more prominent show space, next to its chassis development partner Lotus and across from mainstream high-enders Mercedes-Benz and Audi.
Honda: Small Hybrids
Very different electric directions are apparent from the industry’s early green leaders, Toyota and Honda. There’s nothing cautious, of course, about the Honda CR-Z. Harking back to the CR-X pocket rocket, the new two-seater promises a big dose of zip along with hybrid electric drive zap. Slated for launch this summer, the CR-Z uses Honda’s proven hybrid technology, applying its IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) system plus a 1.5-liter iVTEC engine.
Honda CEO Takanobu Ito—who earlier in his career was part of the team that developed the CR-X—was quite clear, however, that the company still doesn’t view plugging in as quite ready for prime time. He said they are researching a short-distance all-electric commuter car, leaving unstated any plans for moving beyond research and into product development.
Toyota: Family of Priuses
Toyota’s news was the FT-CH hybrid concept car. A “don’t touch me yet” mock-up lit up the stage, sketchy on details except it will be 22 inches shorter than the Prius. The CH in the name stands for Compact Hybrid, and Toyota is targeting the car for a lower price to appeal to a younger, less-affluent but city-hip demographic. Toyota also announced that it is going forward with a Prius brand family, a marketing strategy that Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz said is still taking shape but which will take the Prius beyond a single product and into a set of models bearing the now iconic Prius name.
Yet to hear Toyota’s guarded reiteration of its plans for plug-in hybrids, it seemed obvious that the company was maintaining its circumspection about grid-connected mobility. While other makers’ plug-in plans tout more reaching range numbers, Toyota underwhelms when talking about the Prius Plug-in Hybrid. The car will be “capable of a maximum electric-only driving range of about 13 miles,” said Lentz, and “highway speeds of more than 60 mph in electric-only mode.” Hearing such muted tones of caution makes the electrified sounds from other corners sound like cheerleading.
And so, now steering into the 21st century’s second decade, everyone in the industry agrees that Electric Avenue is indeed the road to follow. Where they don’t agree is on how many charging stations we’ll find—or even need—along the way.