Detroit Auto Show: Diesels Turn Green and Ecofriendly

Hybrid cars took a backseat to diesels, and GM went on an eco-offensive, but pickup trucks were still the big deal at the Detroit auto show

Detroit, Michigan—You know something’s changed when a sleek silver Ferrari F430 Spider has ”Bio Fuel” emblazoned on the doors in bright green, signifying its ability to run on E85 ethanol. This year’s Detroit auto show was all about the environment.

The stars of the show were diesels, and 2009 will see a raft of them launched into the U.S. market—not just from German diesel stalwart Mercedes-Benz but also Audi, BMW, and Volkswagen. Audi showed its stunning R8 supercar with a turbocharged V12 diesel, similar to one that won LeMans, making it undoubtedly the fastest and sexiest diesel in the world.

Other makers with diesel production plans or concept cars include Acura, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Honda, Jeep, Kia, Land Rover, Saturn, and Subaru. Even Mitsubishi—hardly the first brand that comes to mind when thinking diesel—showed a sporty coupe concept with the engine.

Announcements of new hybrid cars were sparse, though several concept cars—including one from a Chinese battery maker—previewed future vehicles. That said, the two highest-volume products launched at the show were full-size pickup trucks. Ford launched a revised F-150—the best-selling vehicle in the United States for 31 years, as the company points out relentlessly—and Dodge showed a revised version of its Ram. Together they generate North American sales of more than 1 million units a year.

Every automaker talked about its strategy for reducing fuel consumption, shifting to alternate fuels—E85, electricity, and occasionally hydrogen—and reducing the environmental footprint of its cars and its operations. Time will tell which announcements result in actual products and which were just ”vaporware.” But this year, as one reporter said, ”it finally seems real.”

Largely ignoring diesels and hybrid cars, Ford instead discussed its EcoBoost engine—which it will offer in high volumes, in both four- and six-cylinder designs, within the next few years. Combining gasoline direct injection with a turbocharger, an EcoBoost V6 provides equal power and torque to a traditional V8, with 10 to 20 percent better fuel economy and up to 15 percent less carbon dioxide. Ford is hardly the only carmaker to use direct injection and turbos, but it’s the first time such an engine will be offered in high volumes.

Overall, the mood at the show was subdued. The assembled media applauded very few cars, since all but one had been previously revealed on the Internet. Fewer automakers built elaborate, multitiered displays; gigantic video screens provided the flash and dazzle instead. And just a handful of exotic brands had the traditional models in cocktail dresses decorating their vehicles.

On the advanced propulsion front, General Motors wielded the biggest stick. Its Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon full-size sport utilities with the Two-Mode Hybrid system go into limited production late this year. The Chevy Volt serial hybrid concept was there, of course, and its E-Flex architecture underpinned two more concepts. One, the Saturn Flextreme, was a minivan previously shown as an Opel at last fall’s Frankfurt auto show. The other was a small Cadillac sport utility, the Provoq, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and electric drive. (Minus those components, it’s a preview of a future production vehicle for Cadillac.) Clearly, GM is fighting to trump Toyota’s previously unassailable ”green” image.

A few hybrid cars came from unexpected sources. Henrik Fisker, a former designer at BMW, unveiled his new company’s Karma luxury hybrid-electric sports sedan. And Fisker Automotive itself revealed an investment by respected venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers. No longer is Tesla Motors the newest Silicon Valley start-up in the car biz.

Fisker’s car, a nonrunning display model, is clearly elegant. But executives declined to specify the engine, batteries, detailed performance specs, or even who would build the car for them—much of which remains to be settled. Meanwhile, the company is taking US $1000 and $5000 deposits on the quoted price of $80 000, for a claimed delivery date in the fourth quarter of 2009. Analysts call that date a very long shot indeed.

Chrysler’s three electric-drive concept vehicles weren’t a surprise—all had appeared online—but their component set was. Each used a different mix from a common set of electric, hybrid, or fuel-cell building blocks that Chrysler is considering for its future drivetrains. The egg-shaped Chrysler ecoVoyager—for customers seeking ”understated elegance and simplicity”—took the company’s nineties cab-forward design into a whole new dimension. It was powered by a fuel cell and lithium-ion batteries. Stylish green off-roading came from the two-seat Jeep Renegade, offering 64 kilometers of electric range, with batteries recharged by a small diesel thereafter. And the electric Dodge Zeo small sport wagon, with 400 km of range, was for drivers who value performance and ”wind in the hair” speed.

Five Chinese carmakers exhibited at Detroit this year, more than ever before. Not a one committed to a date for U.S. sales, evidence of a new reality in approaching the world’s most competitive car market. Their cars were better built than last year’s, but the interior quality and durability still need a lot of work. On the other hand, none of them has been making cars for more than 10 years—and everyone knows they’re learning very quickly.

The most audacious of the Chinese group was BYD Auto. The company claims to supply 65 percent of the world’s nickel-cadmium batteries and 30 percent of its lithium-ion mobile-phone batteries. BYD showed a hybrid-electric F6 sedan with a claimed electric range of 96 km, which it said would be offered for sale in small numbers—only in China—by the end of the year. The car is unlikely to meet U.S. safety, emissions, or durability standards, but it would still be a notable achievement if it happens.

For the largest parts suppliers, the dozens of Chinese automakers present an alluring new market. But they fear they have only a few years in which to sell their advanced technology before the Chinese supply base catches up. So it was significant that JCI-Saft announced two contracts to supply advanced batteries to Chinese makers.

JCI-Saft will provide a complete hybrid battery system to Chery Automobile for the A5 ISG mild hybrid sedan it plans to launch by December. Highlighting the global nature of the car-parts industry, those nickel-metal-hydride cells will be made in France and integrated into a battery pack in China, based on development work done in the United States. The second deal is with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., China’s largest carmaker. JCI-Saft will supply lithium-ion battery systems—its most advanced class—for a demonstration fleet of advanced hybrids that will be on the road within a few months.

About the Author

JOHN VOELCKER has written about automotive technology and other topics for 20 years. He covered software and microprocessor design for IEEE Spectrum from 1985 to 1990.

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