NEW YORK--It is hard for automakers to adjust to austerity. The big events, including the annual Manhattan extravaganza (which opens to the public Friday), are all about glitz. You want new cars unveiled with cannons firing, spokesmodels gesturing, lights flashing and bad, exceptionally loud rock music (think the Tonight Show orchestra) blaring. Now most of it's on high-def screens, and the spokesmodels seem to have gone the way of all flesh.
The Fisker Sunset: A concept convertible version of Fisker's $80,000 plug-in hybrid. Henrik Fisker is behind the windshield pillar. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Amid painful contraction, a new, smaller and more decentralized auto industry is being born. As the Big Three shrink (with the European and Japanese competitors not far behind) dozens of small, overwhelmingly green startups, from Bright Automotive to Aptera, are planning to launch new electric and plug-in vehicles. Tomorrow's consumers will be able to choose from dozens of micro-brands, just as they could in 1910.
Stefan Jacoby, president and CEO of Volkswagen North America, was perhaps an inspired choice as keynote speaker at the auto show press breakfast, since his Golf VI won the World Car of the Year Award today. (The World Green Car is the really inspiring Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell car, which I drove last October on a memorable trip from Manhattan to Greenwich, Connecticut -- land of hedge fund ruination. Read all about it here.
"This is the worst global economy in a generation," said a sober Jacoby, who noted that 2009 U.S. sales for all automakers are likely to be below 10 million -- the lowest numbers since the 1980s. The good news, he said, is that the hard times have "accelerated innovation, with a new focus on fuel economy and sustainable mobility."
Jacoby is also the 2009 chairperson of the 11-member Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which (despite an Eco-Driving experience at the Javits Center) is firmly opposing California's efforts to regulate tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions. If Jacoby sees a contradiction between his green message and his work with AAM, he wasn't talking about it. "We support the government's 35-mile-per-gallon goal, but we want a single national standard on fuel economy," Jacoby said.
The floor was thick with new hybrid and plug-in cars, though New York was not quite as green as Detroit had been earlier in the year. BMW's new hybrid, for instance, is a fairly large SUV that may do no better than 19 mpg combined. Mercedes' ML 450 Hybrid (another big SUV) will achieve a none-too-impressive 21 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway. I'm still not convinced any European carmaker really gets hybrids -- they keep trying to sell us diesels.
The Scion iQ is very likely for production.
Scion unveiled a very cute (and almost certain to be produced) version of Toyota's tiny iQ, and General Motors made a splash by giving people rides in its new urban commuter vehicle, the Project P.U.M.A. concept it developed with Segway. The plan is to have P.U.M.A. pods talk to each other with vehicle-to-vehicle communications, so the driver can relax and send text messages from his Blackberry, which doubles as a dashboard.
The GM/Segway PUMA: on the road in New York. (Segway photo)
This cell phone thing is becoming trendy. I watched as Chrysler's handsome 200C EV, an extended-range electric vehicle similar to the Volt, was put through its paces -- windows up and down, engine, startup -- from a handheld iPhone.
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