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Detroit Auto Show Focuses on Green Cars

Posted: Jan 12, 2009 11:34 a.m.

The North American International Auto Show has opened in Detroit, and the message the auto industry would like to send is clear: we're going green.

USA Today reports, "Automakers are gambling that there's a market for electric-power cars, even as gas prices drop."  In the show's first weekend, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all "unveiled concepts and future production vehicles powered primarily by plug-in batteries. And a Toyota executive said it will bring such electric cars to the U.S. in 2012." 

New hybrid models from Lexus, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Ford and GM also took the stage.

Some of the cars were little more than shells and rough sketches of ideas.  General Motors unveiled an upscale Cadillac coupe version of its highly-anticipated Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle.  The Cadillac Converj, according to the New York Times, "would run for about 40 miles on electric power alone, before needing either a boost from its gas-assist engine or a few hours of recharging."  But how it would do that isn't exactly clear.  "The battery pack could either be larger or smaller than the one in the Volt, and so could the engine," GM Vice Chairman and vehicle development czar Bob Lutz told the Times.  The styling was borrowed as well, bearing "a strange resemblance to the production-ready, gasoline-powered CTS coupe that was pulled from last November's Los Angeles auto show."

Ford announced plans to build an electric version of its Focus compact car for the 2011 model year, and brought out a similarly rough approximation of its design.  The Detroit Free Press that the company "let journalists tool around downtown Detroit in a Focus engineering mule quickly converted to run on lithium batteries, using a Magna-supplied power unit."  The concept car gave only some idea of what to expect, with "much of the trunk...consumed by a battery pack that gave the Focus a range of 85 miles fully charged," but "drove little different than standard Foci, which is the point Ford wants to make."

Chrysler, meanwhile, brought a more polished version of the Dodge EV it had announced over the summer, now known as the Dodge Circuit.  According to MarketWatch, "Troubled Chrysler said [the Circuit] will hit the production lines in 2010. It looks like a slightly redesigned Viper," and is based on a Lotus Europa platform but powered by a 20-killowatt electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack.

However, according to the New York Times, "Chrysler is way behind the curve when it comes to alternative powertrains," and many analysts question whether the company will survive long enough to build this car.

Lexus debuted its first dedicated hybrid car, the HS250h.  Automobile Magazine says "the HS250h slots between the IS and the ES, but many of the car's components seem sourced from the Toyota Camry hybrid."  Lexus claims the car will achieve "fuel economy 30-perecnt better than any other model in its lineup," while maintaining Lexus levels of comfort and resale value.  "Visually, the car looks like a slightly taller version of the IS."  The HS250h may be further along in development than some of the other green cars show in Detroit.  It is expected to reach dealerships in summer.

Toyota also unveiled its own purely electric car.  The company brought an "all-electric version of its iQ urban runabout called the FT-EV," reports the Los Angeles Times.  The four-seat, lightweight commuter car -- with what might be the world's only rear-window-mounted airbags to protect rear passengers -- is expected to offer 50 miles of range."  A production date for the FT-EV has not been set.

Later in the week, the 2010 Honda Insight and 2010 Toyota Prius are scheduled to make their first U.S. appearances at the Detroit show.

"Even the Chinese want a foothold here with electrics," USA Today comments.  "BYD Auto showed a battery-power sedan it says it could bring to the U.S. in two years."

But with gas prices down, some analysts worry that the massive push toward electric and hybrid cars has actually come at a bad time.  The New York Times notes, "automotive executives lament that the current combination of low average fuel prices and plummeting consumer confidence is not exactly spurring the market for the more costly hybrids and battery-electric vehicles.

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