I'm such an idiot. Every year, I go to the gala New York International Automobile Show (at Manhattan's Javits Center through March 30) thinking this will be the year the car industry finally gets it. I'm going to be knocked out by the plethora of ultra-green vehicles!
And every year I'm disappointed.
This Lamborghini (complete with spokesmodel) was typical show fare.
In fact, far from being impressed, I concluded that (despite ever-escalating gas prices and dire climate warnings) this is actually one of the worst years for green car introductions. It's not hard to understand why: Carmakers, especially American ones, are "going green" only very reluctantly, convinced their customers don't agree that small is beautiful.
Exhibit A: Robert Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors and the company's chief "car guy." Here's what he had to say recently: "What we're seeing is there is a portion, a very narrow portion of the population, that will make a financial sacrifice to be green....Most people, not the ecologically committed, but most normal people are going to take a look at how much more am I paying for this fuel-saving technology will I be able to amortize it over the life of the vehicle?"
I added emphasis to the word "normal" because many "car guys" don't consider environmentalists at all normal. In an earlier interview, Lutz spoke disparagingly of the new federal 35-mpg-by-2020 standard, and proclaimed, "We're going to have to sell a ton of hybrids, whether people want them or not." Obviously Lutz, on record as calling global warming "a crock of "@#$%&*, doesn't think people want hybrids, despite the runaway success of the Prius.
Dodge's Zeo: don't expect to see any on the road.
Toyota passed the one million mark in worldwide hybrid sales last year. Honda can't sell enough of its tiny Fits. Smart has 45,000 people on waiting lists. Isn't this evidence of a market for green cars?
Lutz added that he didn't think GM could get to 35 mpg "with anything resembling the current product portfolio." But that's the whole point: The Big Three need a new product portfolio, and it wasn't evident in New York.
The zero-emission battery cars were almost exclusively "concept vehicles," meaning they were built to revolve on show stands and never see production. A prime example: Dodge's carbon fiber 2+2 Zeo Concept, with a lithium-ion (li-ion) battery pack and a supposed 250-mile all-electric range. The silly gull-wing doors are the giveaway: This car is not destined for America's driveways.
Nissan's Cube is sold in the Japanese market.
Other "green" vehicles, such as the GMC Denali XT Hybrid, the Saturn Flextreme (with two onboard Segways!) and the Toyota A-Bat hybrid pickup, had intriguing elements but are also highly unlikely to reduce anyone's carbon footprint in production versions.
For me, the car of the show was the cute-as-a-button li-ion-powered Mitsubishi I-MIEV Sport, with in-wheel motors, a solar photovoltaic roof and projected 125 miles of battery-only range. Mitsubishi could definitely produce the I-MIEV (the name refers to the in-wheel motors) as an urban runabout to compete with the Smart. It can be fast-charged to 80 percent battery capacity in 20 minutes.
The Mitsubishi I-MIEV Sport: ready for the world's roads.
People were detouring around the Honda Clarity FCX, but it was one of the more significant vehicles in the show, a production-ready fuel-cell car that's getting a workout on public roads this year. It has 270-mile range on hydrogen, and sat next to a map display indicating that Los Angeles may have as many as 17 hydrogen stations by 2013.
Chrysler also showed off a crossover called the EcoVoyager that combines li-ion batteries with a small hydrogen fuel cell used to extend range to 300 miles, but this is nowhere near as far along in development as the Honda FCX.
Subaru's modest R1e electric car has 50-mile range.
For the most part, dinosaurs walked the earth. The EcoBoost V-6-powered Lincoln MKT was supposed to be "kind on the environment," but it was also massive. And why did Cadillac showcase GM fuel-cell technology in the big Provoq luxury SUV? Surely hydrogen cars should be lightweight?
We need something like a Manhattan Project to develop the green cars of the future, and I didn't see very many real contenders in New York.
Saab showcased a turbocharged "bioethanol" car.
Photos by Jim Motavalli
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