Green Vies With Fast at British International Motor Show

Electric cars outshine performance purists as carbon concerns loom

For more on the London Motor Show 2008, see Slideshow: London Motor Show Highlights.

Photo: onEdition

A tsunami of electric and low-carbon vehicles swamped fast, sporty high-performance cars at this year's London Motor Show. Most manufacturers touted ”green” sub-brands, and great prominence and publicity was given to 10 brands of electric vehicles arrayed in an ”EV Village.”

To quote British car magazine Autocar , ”There's no getting away from it: The predominant colour--and major buzz-word--at this year's London Motor Show was Green.” And buyers care, at least according to the Clean Green Cars Web site: UK sales by manufacturers with the highest average carbon dioxide emissions fell faster from January to June than did those for lower-emitting makes. (For the record, the carmakers with the highest average CO 2 emissions are Porsche, Land Rover, Jeep, Chrysler, and Subaru.)

Previously exiled to Birmingham, England, for many years, the British International Motor Show, as it is officially called, struggles to attract globally significant car launches. The show always does well with the public, in part, however, by including far more than mere cars. Among other attractions, this year's show offered such ”full-throttle entertainment” as a celebrity driving challenge, a ”car washing master class,” racing simulators, bumper cars, an auto career fair, and booths offering a startling mélange of accessories, car insurance, and more.

Whether all this helps or hurts the show is debatable. Much local press commentary followed the decision by some German manufacturers to forgo a show exhibit altogether. And the cars were arrayed through two halls of East London's ExCeL center either spaciously or sparsely, depending on your view.

Easily the show's most important global launch was General Motors' Insignia--to be sold in high volumes as a Vauxhall in the UK, as an Opel elsewhere in Europe, and possibly as a Saturn in the States. The midsize sedan and hatchback offer a drag coefficient of just 0.26, adaptive all-wheel drive, nine different positions for adaptive headlights, and a camera system that reads not only lane markings but road signs too.

Equally key to the British market was the UK launch of Ford's redesigned Fiesta, a supermini that has been a bestseller in the British Isles for more than 30 years. Ford heavily touted the US $23 600 Fiesta ECOnetic model, which it claims is the ”greenest family car” on the market with CO2 emissions of just 98 grams per kilometer. Two days after the show's press preview, Ford announced a quarterly loss of $8.7 billion and a wholesale migration of European car models to North America. Perhaps the Fiesta ECOnetic will make it to the United States--although not before its diesel is further scrubbed, since it doesn't meet U.S. emissions standards at the moment.

Aside from recalibrating a 16-liter TDCi turbocharged diesel engine and fitting a higher final drive ratio, to lower its consumption Ford lowers the suspension, adds aerodynamic rear air deflectors, uses tires with low rolling resistance, runs low-friction oil, and even advises drivers on optimal gear-shifting points.

Norway's 17-year-old Think Global launched its revised City model, on sale in 2009. Unlike the bulk of electric cars now sold in the UK, the City is both crash tested and highway certified--a ”real car,” in other words. The rest are technically ”quadricycles,” similar to neighborhood electric vehicles in North America. They are limited to 50 kilometers per hour (30 miles per hour) and do not have to meet automotive crash-safety standards.

The City has a top speed of 105 km/h (65 mph) and can travel for 200 km (125 miles) in urban use when fully charged. The present battery uses Zebra sodium-nickel-hydride cells, but Think has new partnerships with U.S.-based lithium-ion cell makers EnerDel and A123 Systems. The City's body is made of ABS plastic, and 95 percent of the car can be recycled. It includes airbags, antilock brakes, and full seatbelts, and is legal for sale not only in Europe but in the United States as well. Once owned by Ford, Think has new financial backing, including an investment by General Electric.

Land Rover launched no vehicles but released more details of its program to green its traditionally large, heavy vehicles. Prototypes incorporating Diesel ERAD (Electric Rear Axle Drive) Hybrid technology are now being road tested. Part of a joint research program with the UK government's Energy Saving Trust, the system includes a lithium-ion battery pack, an integrated starter-generator to restart the engine after switching off when the car stops, and rear drive via an electric motor as part of its fabled all-wheel drive.

Few hydrogen fuel-cell cars appeared, though Honda exhibited its FCX Clarity sedan--now being leased to a few select drivers in Southern California--deeming it the first fuel-cell car built on a standard production line. At a much smaller scale of green, GM offered journalists the use of a dozen laptops powered by small fuel cells (only six remained by the end of the day).

But the most unexpected fuel-cell concept came from eccentric traditionalist Morgan Motor Co. The LIFECar uses a 22-kilowatt QinetiQ hydrogen fuel cell plus a bank of ultracapacitors (of unspecified storage) rather than a chemical battery. At least conceptually, this allows four motor-generators (one per wheel) to recapture up to 50 percent of the kinetic energy wasted during braking--against an average of 10 percent in current hybrid-electric vehicles whose regenerative brakes recharge a battery.

The fuel cell is sized to power the very light car at cruising speeds, with the ultracapacitors giving up to 10 seconds of maximum acceleration. Construction is high-strength alloy, and the styling is a very modern interpretation of the traditional Morgan shape (although the back end resembles nothing so much as a Chevrolet Corvette, at least to some writers' eyes).

As for biofuels, much touted at the 2006 London show, they were virtually invisible. A lot can change in two years: Studies now indicate that it requires more energy to produce biofuels than traditional diesel--not to mention indications that biofuels may contribute to soaring grain costs. Europe now appears to be backing away from a European Union directive that mandated a 10 percent share for biofuels in transport by 2020. In true bureaucratic form, the directive may be ”reinterpreted” to expand the definition of ”renewable energy.”

The show's long tradition of supercars continued, though in a far more subdued way. With laws that exempt makers of 500 cars or fewer from certain regulations, the UK supports a huge industry of tiny automakers and engineering consultancies. Still, the largest remaining wholly British carmaker is now Morgan, which cherishes, and indeed benefits handsomely from, its eccentric independence.

A new entrant, the Lightning Car Co., unexpectedly revealed an all-electric GT car with four wheel motors. Technical director Arthur Wolstenholme confirmed only the barest technical details, and brochures subtly note ”development, testing, and manufacture will take place over the next 18 months,” but only ”on securing the appropriate investment or partner.” Nonetheless, the company is taking deposits for 2010 deliveries. Hmmm.

To Probe Further

For more on the London Motor Show 2008, see Slideshow: London Motor Show Highlights.

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