Cleantech Market Intelligence
At Detroit Auto Show, Gas Makes a Comeback
It’s no secret that the United States automotive market is on the upswing. Chrysler, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and VW are all boasting new strong, if not record-breaking, sales from 2012. This was evident at the North American International Auto Show.
I have been going to the auto show in Detroit since about the mid-1990’s, and in 2009, the show, along with much of the Detroit auto industry, was faltering. Automakers had pulled out of the show. GM and Chrysler were on the brink of bankruptcy. And those that did show up didn’t have extra cash lying around to throw into giant displays and theatrics. Well, 2013 is clearly a different economic feel.
While the show in the last few years has had almost an apologetic quality to it, 2013 had a decidedly different feel. This year the truck displays were as brash and bold as they have ever been (Ford even lowered a pickup truck, called the Atlas Concept, from the ceiling). Chrysler’s Ram 1500 won truck of the year, and Jeep showed off a new high performance Grand Cherokee SRT.
Still, fuel economy was a key message of almost every launch. Start-stop is a feature called out on the Ram 1500. The Grand Cherokee has a new V6 diesel engine with towing capacity of 7,400 lbs and listed fuel economy of 30 mpg on the highway. The Ford Atlas Concept showed features such as wheel shutters that closed when the vehicle is at speed, to lower drag.
EVs Shift Gears
Performance vehicles are also back in a big way. Of course, there has been a lot of digital ink spilled on the new Corvette. Audi also displayed the new 2014 RS 7, which will hit 62 mph in under 4 seconds, thanks to a 560 hp V8. Again, fuel economy was another key message, as the RS 7’s cylinder shut-off feature improves fuel economy by 10%.
So, where were the electrics? Well, they weren’t forgotten, but there was a decided shift in tone. This year, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) were the format of choice. VW showed a new midsize SUV concept, the CrossBlue, with 15 miles of electric driving and 35 mpg from the turbo diesel engine. And Cadillac unveiled the production version of the ELR, which uses the Volt plug-in drivetrain.
The big battery electric at the show was an updated version of the Tesla Model X. Clearly, this vehicle is getting closer to production, but still has a ways to go. Tesla is planning to use the 60 kilowatt-hour (kWh) and 85 kWh battery packs to achieve 200-plus miles of range, along with the 17 in touch screen from the Model S. Prices weren’t given but I expect the 60 kWh option to land somewhere in the $75,000 neighborhood. Telsa also again promised a vehicle close to the BMW 3 series in size and price vehicle within the next 3 to 4 years.
Nissan’s venerable LEAF was there too, but it felt like old news. With a 3-year-old design, Nissan seems to be struggling to keep the reduced-price LEAF relevant. The big excitement at Nissan was reserved for the new Versa Note, a subcompact internal-combustion vehicle.
Other small things pointed to the comeback of the internal combustion engine (ICE) over the electrics this year. Small SUVs (really small) were numerous, with Honda and Lincoln revealing new “compact utility vehicles” (CUVs). The test drive circuit in the basement of Cobo Center, which has featured a test track for driving BEVs, PHEVs, and HEVs in the past, this year included a regular gas-powered Fiat 500 sport, despite the BEV 500 being upstairs on the show floor. The test track was half to a third the size of past years (perhaps due to remodeling going on in Cobo), and had significant roof leaks, which gave the whole thing the unfortunate feeling of being trapped in a dungeon with the green cars.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the times (and the most perplexing) came to us again from Bob Lutz. While converting ICE vehicles to electric may be so 2009, VL Automotive (a design firm) is now converting PHEV Fisker Karmas to V8 powered ICE vehicles under the name Destino. Electric drives may be here to stay, but clearly big gas power isn’t going away.