DETROIT—Electric cars have become the most hotly discussed items at auto shows, and Detroit’s annual event is no exception. Still, despite claims that the North American International Auto Show is packed with new products, only a handful of pure electric models turned up, including a battery-powered Ford Focus. Hybrids also made a modest showing, led by new additions to Toyota’s Prius family and a new hybrid from Audi. Concept cars, too, are relatively small in number. Yet, those created by Kia and MINI, in particular, as well as by Hyundai, deserve some hearty accolades.
Pure Electric Cars
Even before Ford has its redesigned Focus ready for sale as a 2012 model, a battery-powered version debuted at the Detroit show. Actor Ed Begley Jr.—a long-time advocate of electric cars—introduced the Focus Electric virtually, via a huge video image. As Begley finished, a flurry of paper butterflies fluttered down toward the media audience, meant to remind them of the icons that are used to display highest-efficiency driving in a hybrid or electric car.
Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global vice-president of product development, noted that the Focus Electric can be charged in three hours, and that charging stations are 30 percent cheaper than those offered by other manufacturers. Ford has partnered with the likes of Microsoft and even the Geek Squad to help make the Focus Electric launch successful. Ford showed two derivatives of its new C-Max small minivan (also called a multi-activity vehicle): the five-passenger C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid; and the C-Max Hybrid.
From China came BYD (Build Your Dreams), which made its first appearance at the Detroit show in 2008. This year’s presentation heralded the world debut of the company’s e6 S6DM plug-in hybrid concept SUV called a dual-mode electric. Also introduced for the first time: the 2012 e6 Premiere electric five-passenger crossover. Even before the media presentation began, BYD showed an intense video warning of the dangers of ignoring global warming and continued damage to the environment. Though most of its points were valid concerns, the overall tone was so ominous that even hardened environmentalists might have turned away and ignored the eco-minded message.
Mercedes-Benz focused on fuel cells—a power source for electric vehicles that used to feature prominently at auto shows, but which has almost fallen off the radar lately. Some years back, fuel-cell proponents made it sound like real-world vehicles weren’t far off. Today, some wonder if that day ever will come.
To help keep fuel-cell prospects alive, Mercedes-Benz showed an F-Cell model that will soon embark upon a World Drive. Cars running on hydrogen-powered fuel cells will depart on January 29, to drive through 14 countries on four continents, in 155 days. Each car is expected to travel more than 20,000 miles.
Today, said Dr. Joachim Schmidt, head of sales and marketing, the hydrogen infrastructure situation is similar to that of gasoline in the early days of motoring. “Now, it’s up to the government and the private sector” to take action. Mercedes-Benz says the F-Cell will go into real series production. Also on display was an SLS gullwing supercoupe that runs on four electric motors.
Tesla is one of a handful of companies that actually make electric cars: notably, a high-dollar roadster that runs solely on battery power. More than 1,500 roadsters are now on the road, in 31 countries. Next up is the Model S sedan, shown in bodyshell form at the Detroit show, to demonstrate its construction qualities. Built with aerodynamics and weight-saving in mind, the Model S will have a battery pack that’s called a “a structural element in its own right.” The battery’s mass is low, for a lower center of gravity. Front and rear luggage compartments will be available, and customers can choose from three range options. Launch date is May of 2012.
Volvo took quite a different tack with its C30 Electric hatchback. Now owned by a Chinese holding company, the Swedish automaker displayed a C30 Electric that had been crashed, to illustrate the safety elements that pertain to the vehicle’s battery pack.
Another Notable Hybrid from Toyota
“I have come to talk about our commitment to the American customer,” said company head Akio Toyota, before getting specific about alternative-fuel plans. In 2012, Toyota intends to launch a battery electric model and a plug-in hybrid. Even a fuel-cell vehicle is in the works, for 2015 or earlier. At the Detroit show, however, the big news was a larger version of the current Prius.
“Today, we’re going to plant the family tree and watch it grow,” said Bob Carter, group vice-president and general manager of Toyota in America. Prius V (for Versatility), dubbed “a new evolution,” is more wagon-like, but built on the same platform as the regular Prius. Bigger in size, it promises nearly 60 percent more cargo volume (34 cubic feet behind the back seat). Fuel economy of 42-mpg city/38-mpg highway falls significantly short of the regular Prius, but presumably frugal enough to target young families. A backup camera will be standard, and a resin moonroof optional. Sales begin in late summer.
Toyota also unveiled a Prius-C concept, accompanied by music that seemed to resemble beating a tin roof with a mallet. Meant to be fun to drive as well as economical, the concept was created to attract singles and eco-concerned couples.
Next year, Toyota promises to have the highest-mileage hybrid without a plug on sale, at an “affordable” price. Carter recalled that Bob Lutz, recently retired from GM, had once called the early Prius “a PR stunt.” Nearly a million Priuses have been sold in the U.S. over the past decade, including 230,000 current-generation models. Since the Prius debuted, 13 brands have gone the hybrid route, offering 30 models.
Audi also unveiled a hybrid–its second, following the Q5 Hybrid Quattro. This one is a battery-powered version of its A6 sedan, which is newly redesigned. A 211-horsepower, 2.0-liter gasoline engine works with a 45-horsepower electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack. Front-drive and Quattro all-wheel drive will be available.
Concept Vehicle Reaches Back to Seventies
Flashy concept models used to be a high point at auto shows—especially in Detroit. Lately, the number of show cars has been dwindling, and not all are nearly as snazzy or futuristic as in the past.
Kia looks like the prime contender for the imaginative concept prize, with its KV7. Flamboyant to the eye, it’s more in keeping with the pizzazz of earlier show cars. Rather than base the KV7 upon a minivan or other contemporary body style, Kia’s designers looked back to the 1970s, when full-size vans were the rage as recreational vehicles. Vans back then promised a “spirit of adventure and friendship” that’s absent now, said Tom Loveless, Kia’s vice-president of sales. Especially on the West Coast, added chief design officer Peter Schreyer, a “van represented freedom and adventure.”
Others have tried hard to attach a sporty nature to minivans, Schreyer said, but Kia has retained a strictly upright profile—if in a decidedly modern vein. Creators have “reimagined the van as a social magnet,” he added. Their mission: “to take back the van.”
Only by squinting a bit is any resemblance to traditional-type vans evident, helped by the more vertical windshield pillars. Gullwing doors won’t remind anyone of a ‘70s van, and swiveling rear seats give the KV7 a relaxed, inviting nature that’s meant to entice young folks. Kia is “celebrating the box,” said U.S. chief designer Tom Kearns, “just as we did with the Soul. A box is perfectly efficient, especially for moving a bunch of people.”
MINI also came up with a stimulating design concept called the Paceman, following the lead of its recently added Countryman—the first four-door Mini model. Described as “urban and masculine,” this “crossover coupe” retains the frontal appearance that’s so familiar to MINI owners and fans, led by what’s dubbed an “imposing nose.” The flat roofline flows into a wide rear pillar that’s meant to appear transparent. Coupe-style windows taper toward the rear. Rather than maintaining the vertical profile of the four-door Countryman on which the Paceman concept is actually based, the two-door Paceman displays a more horizontal theme that accents the car’s width. Beneath the hood is a John Cooper Works twin-scroll turbocharged engine, making 211 horsepower. Rear-seat backrests merge into the sides, to create a “club lounge” character. MINI expects to produce the Paceman.
Hyundai designers in California adopted “tough tech” and “urban living” themes to create the Curb compact crossover concept. Led by an extra-wide grille mouth, the Curb features a wraparound windshield, 22-inch wheels, and pop-up roof rack. Hyundai notes the car’s fluidic sculpture design philosophy, which includes some sharp edges. A driver can enter the Curb by simply brushing his or her hand across a touch pad. Unlike SUVs, the Curb is “designed to handle the urban off-road,” such as potholes. Also featured is a new blueLink system that had just been introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show. Friends of potential Generation-Y drivers could be kept aware of the car’s location at all times.
Ford revealed so many models at the Detroit show that the Vertrek concept almost got lost in the rush. Carrying a new 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine, the five-passenger compact SUV is thought to hint at the next-generation Escape. Automatic start/stop is among its notable features.
Honda billed its Civic hatchback coupe and sedan as concept models, but production versions will be coming soon to dealerships.
At a pre-dawn news conference, Porsche introduced its 918 RSR hybrid-powertrain coupe, seating two with a midi-engine configuration. Said to blend a single-seat racecar with hybrid technology, the 918 RSR holds a gasoline engine that develops 563 horsepower at a whopping 10,300 rpm. Two electric motors drive the front wheels. Peak power is 767 horsepower, and the driver can push a button to access the stored strength. Porsche also announced that a hybrid version of the Panamera will be manufactured.
Also at the upper end of the market, Bentley revealed a new 2012 Continental Flying Spur and a new Continental Flying Spur Series 51 model. New infotainment systems are installed, too. Don’t bother trying to order a flagship Mulsanne sedan, however. They’re all sold for 2011.
Read Detroit Auto Show Highlights, Part 1, with Photo Gallery.