Detroit Auto Show Gets Real, With Efficiency

In the past, the Detroit auto show was all about theater. Pulsating music, fog machines, and sexy models. Some of that remains, but at this year’s show, starting next week, automakers are getting real. Ford, for example, isn’t showing a single way-out concept car—only production models. Gone are the cattle drives through Cobo Center, cars breaking through sheets of glass, and trucks dropping down from rafters. After spending millions of dollars on glitzy displays but fighting higher efficiency standards, car companies are finally putting their energies into the battle for leadership in advanced fuel-saving technology.

Volt vs. Leaf

In the auto show’s heavyweight category, General Motors and Nissan are duking it out over electric drivetrains. For the first time, these companies are launching real competing production models that use little or no gasoline. The Chevy Volt can travel up to 40 miles without using a drop of gasoline. After 40 miles, a small engine-generator sustains the on-board batteries for an additional 260 miles or so. That makes the Nissan Leaf’s 100-mile range seem low, but then again, the all-electric Leaf is claiming the electric equivalent of 367 miles to the gallon compared to the Volt’s mere 230 mpg. (Besides, 100 miles is more than sufficient for the vast majority of Americans who drive less than 40 miles on average per day—and mpg numbers for electric cars are almost entirely meaningless.)

Cost is an obvious concern, but just last week, GM executives hinted at reducing the price below $40,000 for the Volt, and the Leaf could come in right around $30,000. Both vehicles will qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit, are due in limited numbers late this year—and represent major advances in efficient transportation.

CR-Z vs. Prius Jr.

Meanwhile, hybrid gas-electric cars are rapidly moving into the mainstream. The Detroit show hosts a battle for hybrid affordability pitting the small sporty two-seater Honda CR-Z Hybrid against a subcompact gas-electric concept car from Toyota. The CR-Z, weighing in probably around $20,000, could also put a new level of fun into the hybrid segment when it arrives later this year. Its design is based on the legendary high-mpg Honda CR-X sports compact. Honda showed up last year in Detroit with another small hybrid, the Honda Insight, only to watch it get slapped down by the 50-mpg Toyota Prius. A smaller and even more affordable Prius spinoff could achieve what the Insight was unable to do—bringing practical hybrid technology to the masses.

Cruze vs. Focus

Proving that superlative fuel efficiency doesn’t require expensive battery-powered drivetrains, Ford and GM are going head-to-head on efficiency with conventional engines and small cars. The Chevy Cruze—more important to the company than the Chevy Volt—will use a 1.4-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine to grant fuel economy in the mid-30s or higher. Ford’s all-new 2.0-liter direct injection engine will power the 2012 Ford Focus in North America—part of the company’s new engine line-up geared toward reduced emissions and higher fuel efficiency. The subcompact Ford Fiesta’s 1.6-liter engine and dual clutch transmission will deliver 40 mpg on the highway.

Heat vs. Light

Gov Motors Poster

Poster produced by Tax Day Tea Party, promoting its protest at the 2010 Detroit auto show.

The winners in these green car match-ups are consumers. Fuel efficiency across the fleet is on the rise, with a growing number of stellar models breaking new ground in advanced technology, innovative design, and good old-fashioned fun behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, the shift from spectacle to efficiency at the Detroit auto show will be upstaged by a different kind of theatricality—the political kind. On the show’s first media day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other public officials will visit Cobo Hall. They’ll be traveling from Washington—by private jet perhaps?—to peruse and be photographed next to the vehicles that post-bankruptcy General Motors and Chrysler are producing. The Pelosi posse will be confronted by foes from the National Tax Day Tea Party who will be waving signs that say “Government Motors,” and protesting use of taxpayer dollars to save car companies.

This political grandstanding, on both sides, will generate more heat than light. That’s okay. The lights aimed at fuel-efficient cars in the exhibition hall are shining brighter than ever before.

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  • Mr.Bear

    I’m glad the astro-turfers will be there to shout, “Give me back my Hummer!” And if anyone, including the government, could run GM or Chrysler any worse than they have been run for the past decade, I’d be impressed.

    I suspect the subdued show has more to Detroit’s 29% unemployment and 50% underemployment than any attempt to be more green.

  • DJB

    What won’t be highlighted at the Detroit Auto Show is a persistent inefficiency shared by all cars: their use of land in cities.

    No matter what a car is powered by, it needs places to park. The result is the strip-mall/suburban landscape (crudscape) of America. All of the land used by cars for parking has a devastating impact on the environment in at least two important ways:

    1) Cities spread out farther, directly consuming much more farmland and natural habitat than they should.

    2) This sprawl, by increasing travel distances, and putting millions of dangerous vehicles on the road, makes it harder to walk, ride a bicycle, or use public transportation, which basically forces everybody who can afford to to drive. No matter how cheaply we can make hybrids/electrics, cars will still be the most expensive form of mass transportation in human history, with devastating results for the poor, and the environment.

    This is a neat blog, but it misses too much of the impact vehicles have on our cities and our society.

  • ZeroImpactBS


    Cute post. Perhaps you should follow John Denver’s lead and impact the environment post haste.

    Every breath you take
    Every meal you make
    Every walk you don’t forsake
    The environment suffers because of you

  • Mr.Bear

    We should have stuck with horses. A horse in every garage. Just imagine all the CO2 emissions that could be prevented. Never mind manure decomposes into methane, a worse greenhouse gas. Never mind that all those grain fields would be sprayed with fertilizer and pesticide.

    I want my horse.

  • 38mpg

    Farming is is very much an environmentally destructive process. I remember reading some where that >90% of forests were cut down for farming.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Mr. Bear,
    What scares me the most about the Government owning GM is that if a private company screws up and runs out of money, they and their creditors go out of business. If (when) the government screws it up, they threaten to knock on my door (and yours) with guns and make me bail them out.
    The green events at the auto show were not, however, started by the government but, rather, by Tesla and the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car”, two forces that slapped the executives of the American car companies harder than they’ve ever been slapped before.

  • ericbecky

    ex-EV1 driver,
    As much as I am a fan of Who Killed the Electric car, you still have to remember that the movie is rather slanted.

    And as far as Tesla, again, I am a fan of Tesla, but they are not any threat to GM.

    It was more like high gas prices, and the fact that a large portion of GM’s profits came from low-mpg vehicles and the poor economy that gave them a slap.

    I have watched the car shows transform themselves of the past years with a greater focus on fuel economy which has been a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

    Eric Powers
    Green Drive Expo
    * SF Bay Area – Second weekend in June
    * Madison, WI – Third weekend in July

  • Scott Z

    This makes me hate the auto industry and Detroit in particular even more. This is just proof they could have raised the fuel efficiency at any time they wanted. Just appears all they wanted to do was make sure more money went to the oil producing countries and oil companies of the world.

    If I could afford a Tesla I would do it just so I did not have to give a dime to companies like GM and Chrysler.

    Least we have good non-hybrids coming at as well. I had a 93 Civic Si that did 36 to 40 MPG. I have been wondering where cars like that went.

    I still want an all electric car. No Oil change. No transmission. No air or oil filters. Looking at the expected maintenance of a car like the Tesla makes me very happy. I would not need to see a mechanic for maintenance except once per year! 🙂

  • Casey Verdant

    Detroit has a chance to show the nation and the world that they’re listening to the cries for greater fuel efficiency! The Ford Focus, the Toyota FT-CH, and the Honda CR-Z hybrid are all great eco-friendly cars of the sort Americans are now demanding: let’s hope for more like them as the Auto Show continues.

    If you are interested in hybrids, fuel cells, or any other green technologies, check out It has hundreds of case studies on emerging green tech and the largest b2b green directory on the web.

  • HarrisLangdon

    I’m glad that a couple of electric cars models were presented in the Detroit auto show. I once spoke with a friend, who sells Land Rover parts. He told me that people are willing to buy these types of cars, but they are concerned about the price, which still remains high. Maybe a Government consistent subvention will attract many more drivers.

  • RonAbner56

    At Detroit auto show General Motors presented some great cars. The electric automobile started to have a greater importance, which is good. Next when I’ll use Fox Car Rental services I’ll ask them if they have a Honda CR-Z Hybrid in the store.

  • tapra1

    trucks dropping down from rafters. After spending millions of dollars on glitzy displays but fighting higher efficiency standards, Top UK Hosting