There wasn’t a V8 to be heard. Full-size SUVs were banished from sight. And the words “electric car” and “hybrid vehicle” were on every carmaker’s video screen.
Detroit—This year’s Detroit auto show was tossed into a brave new world where every manufacturer has to show a plan for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or battery electric cars for the new US administration that will begin next week.
We previewed the show a few days ago; now we’ll recap the results. A few automakers actually pulled off a surprise or two, a rare and welcome gift these days when everything’s previewed online. To help you sort through the hype, here’s our list of what’s real and what’s not.
Expect It (in showrooms soon)
Despite the auto market meltdown, Toyota executive Irv Miller proclaimed the new 2010 Toyota Prius “the most important product announcement of the show.” Other automakers may have disagreed, but Miller’s probably right. The company hopes to sell 180,000 of its third-generation Prius in the first full year—putting it solidly in the Top 10 Best-Selling US vehicles.
The 2010 Lexus HS250h sedan, the first dedicated hybrid for Lexus, shares a basic platform with the new Prius—though its wheelbase is longer and production will be lower. Lexus projects sales of 30,000 in the first year. The HS250h could be viewed as a new Prius with a trunk, lots of luxury accoutrements, and a different balance of fuel economy and features. But Lexus has done well enough in its 20 years that competitors should fear any new model, as unlikely as this one may seem at first glance.
The Honda Insight just showed up in Honda’s display on the second day of the show, without speeches or any media event. The company did issue a press release describing the car and its mechanicals, and it will hit showrooms this spring. It was a minimal launch from a company that believes small is good, economical is better, and clever engineering is best.
The Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHybrid got relatively little attention, despite a unique claim to fame: It’s the first production hybrid car to use a lithium ion battery pack. Its mild-hybrid system provides only stop-start capability, with no electric running. But Benz engineers managed to fit the 0.6-kilowatt-hour lithium battery into the same space as the car’s standard large lead-acid 12-Volt starter battery, with cooling provided via a takeoff from the car’s air-conditioning system. The S400 hybrid is identical to a standard S-Class sedan, however, so unless you customarily read chrome trunk badges, you may never notice it—which may have been the problem at the show.
Doubt It (until you hear more)
News of a Cadillac coupe on Volt underpinnings leaked out before the show, but the real thing—the Cadillac Converj concept—won rave reviews for its elegant, aggressive styling. “It’s almost like GM built a Cadillac Gallardo,” said a smitten analyst, referring to Lamborghini’s radical sports car. While GM will obviously use Volt mechanicals—collectively renamed Voltec—in various vehicles, wait for more details of the “Cadi-Volt” before you put down your deposit.
The electric Dodge EV sports car, previewed last fall by Chrysler’s ENVI advanced technology group, has now been renamed the Dodge Circuit. Heavily based on the Lotus Europa (just as the Tesla Roadster uses basic structures and components from the Lotus Elise), the Circuit has a 200-kilowatt (268 hp) electric motor and can do 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. This vehicle has somewhat more chance of production than plug-in versions of existing Chrysler products, which were joined at the show by a plug-in adaptation of the small crossover Jeep Patriot.
The Fisker Karma on display at this year’s show looked almost identical to last year’s, except that this one was actually a running prototype, against last year’s mockups. Widespread industry skepticism about the company was countered by Fisker’s insistence that its first cars remain on schedule to be delivered to paying customers just before the end of the year. The company also announced a convertible coupe with a retractable hardtop, called the Karma S Sunset, which would be the first hybrid convertible if it goes into production. Still, we’d wait until Fiskers are in showrooms before writing a check.
Mercedes-Benz also showed its BlueZero E-Cell concept car, one of three versions with various advanced propulsion systems. This one was all-electric, but the shape likely previews the next B-Class Mercedes, which the company is considering selling in the United States—though not as an electric vehicle.
Chinese battery and auto manufacturer BYD showed an all-electric crossover, the e6, along with its F3DM and F6DM plug-in hybrid sedans. It also announced plans to sell the F6DM in the US within a few years, although it didn’t set a firm schedule—probably wise, since the car hasn’t yet been certified for sale, and faces questions on its quality, crashworthiness, and equipment. But BYD carries an investment from famed financier Warren Buffet to certify its seriousness, and it does have the honor of putting the world’s first plug-in hybrid production vehicle on sale last fall. Stay tuned for more from BYD.
Finally, despite its surreal and glittery paint job, the all-electric Toyota FT-EV concept was pretty much ignored in the furor over the new Prius. Effectively an electric version of the existing Toyota iQ mini-car (with some styling tweaks), the concept shows that Toyota is serious about the small electric urban car. Stay tuned on this one, too.
Though it looks utterly unchanged from the smallest car sold in the US, the Smart EV is actually a pure electric car. It’s the latest update to the earlier Smart ED model, of which a few hundred prototypes are on the road in Europe. That car used a 26.4-kWh sodium-nickel-chloride battery driving a 30-kW motor, giving acceleration from 0 to 30 mph (yes, 30) of 6.5 seconds, with a 60-mph top speed and a range of 50 to 70 miles. A Smart that slow clearly wouldn’t do well in the US market, so the company’s big news at Detroit was a deal with Tesla Motors for a version of the battery it uses in the Tesla Roadster electric sports car. Initially, the agreement covers just 1,000 battery packs, though Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he hoped it would expand beyond that.
Forget It (never gonna happen)
The beautiful Chrysler 200C concept, one of the show’s surprises, mixes a variety of Chrysler and electric themes. It’s built on a cut-down version of the Chrysler 300C sedan’s rear-wheel-drive chassis, but executives also said vaguely it could be front-wheel-drive. It was called a plug-in hybrid, with the company’s new line of Phoenix V6 engines providing power. Yet not a single analyst we interviewed believed that Chrysler’s ENVI advanced powertrain unit was doing real engineering. A few even suggested that the company’s plug-in vehicles, including the electric Jeep Patriot and Town and Country, are nothing more than a PR stunt. Widespread speculation that owner Cerberus is desperately trying to sell, part out, or shut down the third of the “Detroit Three” produced a consensus that the elegant 200C may never see the light of day—whether powered by gasoline, electricity, or anything else under the sun.