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
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.