Detroit Auto Show – Hybrid & Electric Car Report Card
There were wall-to-wall hybrids and electric vehicles at this year’s Detroit show. We divide the show’s cars into three categories: Expect It, Doubt It or Fuhgeddaboutit. And offer an amusing video of die-hard Prius fans in Detroit.

Obama: Let California Regulate Its Greenhouse Gases
The new president is making good on promises to help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. The writing is on the wall for automakers.

Toyota Gets Aggressive with Prius Sales
Hybrid sales took a nosedive in late 2008. What’s Toyota doing about it?

Reading Hybrid Tea Leaves
Everybody loves the cool concept cars at auto shows. But the real story is in “take rates” and production numbers.

Grab Bag of News
Why you should crush your car, the dollars and cents of plug-in hybrids, and Aptera postpones.


Greetings, Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,

This is our 43rd hybrid newsletter but our first one after the administration of President 43. We’re just a few days under the leadership of Obama-and it feels like a new world. Judging from his quick action on cars, energy and the environment, and all the hybrids and electric vehicles at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, change seems like more than a campaign catch phrase. We hope you enjoy our snapshot of this critical turning point for hybrids and other greener car alternatives. Enjoy.


Detroit Auto Show: Hybrid & Electric Report Card

We made the annual pilgrimage to the Motor City for the 2009 Detroit Auto Show. Did we miss the news that the world had stopped turning on its axis? Must have, because there wasn’t a V8 to be heard at the Cobo Center. Full-size SUVs were banished from sight. And the words “electric car” and “hybrid vehicle” were on every carmaker’s video screen. 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 U.S. administration.

Here’s our recap of what we saw, in the form of a report card. We give three different grades for the cars on display: Expect It, Doubt It, and Fuhgeddaboutit. (And sorry, we don’t grade on a curve.)

Expect It (in showrooms soon)

2010 Toyota Prius
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 among the Top 10 best-selling vehicles in America. The new Prius will be the only vehicle to break 50-mpg combined city/highway fuel economy.

Also: See our short video of the party Toyota threw in Detroit for 50 of the world’s biggest Prius fans. It’s a fun way to kill three minutes.

Lexus HS 250h
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. 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.

2010 Honda Insight
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–a scaled-down $18,000 Prius look-alike–which 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.

Mercedes S400 Hybrid
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 propulsion.

Doubt It (until you hear more)

Cadillac Converj concept
A Cadillac coupe on Volt plug-in hybrid underpinnings 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.

Dodge Curcuit
The electric Dodge EV sports car, previewed last fall, has been renamed the Dodge Circuit. Heavily based on the Lotus Europa, the Circuit has somewhat more chance of production than plug-in versions of existing Chrysler products, such an all-electric Jeep Patriot.

Fisker Karma
The Fisker Karma, a luxury plug-in hybrid 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. 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.

Mercedes BlueZero E-Cell
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 may sell in the United States-though not as an electric vehicle.

BYD, Three Ways
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 America within a few years, although it didn’t set a date.

Toyota FT-EV
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.

Smart EV
Though it looks utterly unchanged from the smallest car sold in the U.S., 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.

Fuhgeddaboutit (never gonna happen)

Chrysler 200C
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. 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.


Obama: Let California Regulate Its Greenhouse Gases

Days into his presidency, Barack Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge by telling the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its rejection of California’s rules to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The action follows a request for new public review of the Bush-era decision from both California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the head of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols.

In practical terms, if the waiver is granted, automakers will have to comply with new, more stringent rules that cut fuel consumption for the vehicles they sell in California and other states. National laws require an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, but California’s regulations could lead to the rough equivalent of 45 to 50 mpg (depending on the state). Automakers, dealers, and their allies have reacted with alarm, raising the familiar refrain of a “patchwork” of laws that differ in each state.

By now, 17 other states, covering more than half the U.S. population, have agreed to adopt California’s standards. The challenge comes in the definition of compliance, which depends on the mix of vehicles sold in each state. Dealers say that they might be forced to switch off sales of trucks by August to meet the limits. Automakers couldn’t simply ship them whatever sells, but would have to vary the model mix state by state. Buyers could still buy vehicles in other states-a loophole-and new automakers from China and India would be exempt for a few years.

The devil is always in the details, and these fears may have some relevance. But they’re also sadly reminiscent of automakers’ absolute intransigence toward any regulation of their products or industry in any form over the last 50 years. The counter-proposal is no more than, “Stick with what’s there, don’t do anything new.” Detroit, how’s that been working for you lately?


Toyota Gets Aggressive with Prius Sales

In the first half of 2008, the Toyota Prius was selling like hotcakes. But sales plummeted with gas prices in the last months of the year. As a result, Toyota is now offering tried-and-true dealer incentives, and customer perks, to stimulate sales.

According to Automotive News, dealers will get a $750 “spiff” for every 2009 Prius they can sell. But that’s not all. The company announced a newly established certified used Prius program, adding more buyer protection for those who might hesitate to buy a used hybrid. The program extends warranties, and reduces financing, for 2002-2006 Priuses that go through the inspection program.

“It’s no longer a seller’s market,” said Earl Steward, a Toyota dealer in North Palm Beach, Fla.


Reading Tea Leaves: Hybrid Take Rates and Production Numbers

While dismal auto sales are predicted to continue well into 2009, automakers are betting that the way out of this mess involves green, high-tech offerings. As we reported, nearly every major automaker showcased new electric-drive vehicles at the Detroit show. But the area to watch in 2009 is not vehicle launches or high-tech concepts: it’s production volumes. Introducing new hybrid and electric vehicle models is fine, but those vehicles will only have a real impact on oil consumption and emissions if they are produced and sold in large volumes.

Consider the relative hybrid “take rates” for three hybrid makers. Honda sold 1.4 million vehicles in 2008 in the U.S., but only 31,500 of those were hybrids-equal to 2.2 percent of the total. Almost 11 percent of the Toyota’s U.S. sales were hybrids.

General Motors offers an impressive number of hybrid models, but produces them in such small quantities that hybrids amount to an insignificant fraction of the company’s overall vehicle sales. If automakers like GM are truly betting their future on hybrids and other electric-drive technologies, they have put surprisingly few chips on the table. Whether this changes in 2009 remains to be seen.

The way to tell will be to look beyond this week’s flashy product announcements and the slick ads that follow. Instead, scrutinize next year’s production numbers, and you’ll be able to tell who is serious about electrification, and who is simply trying to steal momentum from the latest automotive trend.


Grab Bag of News

It’s hard to keep up with all the green car news hitting the wires, airwaves and blogs these days. Here’s a quick sampling (with links) of what jumped out at us.

Save the Economy: Crush Your Car!

Germany offers a government discount of $3,280 on a new car bought by owners who scrap their old polluting cars. The U.S. Congress is considering a discount of $4,500 if drivers crush old gas-guzzlers and buy fuel-efficient new models.

Aptera Postpones Launch of Three-Wheel Electric Car

Aptera, which had planned to deliver its three-wheeled electric car to customers last month, has now postponed the production launch for almost a year. Production models of the Aptera 2e (formerly known as Type-1), an all-electric vehicle with a range of 100 miles, were to have been delivered by the end of 2008. The company now says the first production 2e will be completed Jan. 16, and will head to fleets.

Consumer Reports Questions Plug-In Practicality

That Bible for smart shoppers, Consumer Reports–whose new-car reliability ratings are hugely influential–took a leap into the future in its February issue. It tested a Toyota Prius that had been converted to a plug-in hybrid, using the Hymotion L5 conversion kit sold by A123 Systems of Watertown, Mass. While Hymotion claims its kit can return up to 100 miles per gallon, CR’s Auto Test Center in East Haddam, Connecticut, logged just 67 mpg-against the 42 mpg they recorded in a stock Prius. “At almost $11,000,” the magazine noted, “the plug-in conversion clearly won’t save consumers money overall”-though they deigned to declare the plug-in technology “viable.”



If this is any indication of what lies ahead in the hybrid world in 2009, then we’re in for the ride of our lives. Thanks for checking out the newsletter and Please spread the word. Until next time…

Happy Driving,
Bradley Berman
[email protected]