- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

Detroit has set a new pattern for auto shows over the next decade. For the past 10 years at seemingly every news conference, carmakers revealed their worshipful look backward at famous and beloved products, resurrected in the form of “new concept cars” - or even production models.

But the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit marked the first year for the major introduction of electric vehicles to gain substantial momentum. We will surely see some of this year’s crop of electric concepts turn up as production models, eventually. And yet-unforeseen variations on the electric-drive theme will surely emerge as unorthodox new ideas.

Skeptics will observe that electric cars have been “the Next Big Thing” for about a century, but with erratic fuel prices and availability, and less willingness to keep buying gas from the countries that possess most of the oil reserves, drivers are motivated as never before to look for alternatives to gasoline.

“Electricity makes a lot of sense, because it almost completely displaces gasoline,” observed GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz.

Headlining the debuts in Detroit was the latest iteration in a veteran electric car, the hybrid gas-electric Toyota Prius. The Prius got a face-lift with some nifty new gadgets, such as an optional roof-mounted solar panel that automatically powers cabin vent fans to keep the interior from getting broiling hot on summer days. But even with a larger-but-more-efficient, all-new 1.8-liter gas engine and Toyota’s latest-generation electric-drive hardware, the new Prius is an incremental improvement over the outgoing model, with predicted EPA combined fuel-economy climbing from 46 mpg to 50 mpg.

Honda has also been in the electric-drive game since the late 1990s when it debuted the Insight. That tiny two-seater was too limited in practicality to have widespread appeal, and the company dropped it in favor of hybrid-electric versions of mainstream models like the Civic and Accord. But now the Insight name is back, on an all-new 2010 five-door hatchback designed from the ground up to provide a cost-effective alternative to the Prius for shoppers looking for a dedicated hybrid-only model.

Recognizing the concern that prospective buyers have about the upfront cost of hybrid-electric vehicles, Honda developed a system that puts more emphasis on the “cost” end of the cost/benefit equation. But even a hybrid that doesn’t wring every possible BTU out of its fuel or every watt out of its batteries still produces impressive efficiency, with a predicted 41 EPA combined mpg.

Ford has been quietly building its not-terribly-efficient Escape Hybrid compact SUV and has been learning some lessons and improving its know-how. The company revealed the product of that learning when it unveiled the Fusion Hybrid, a midsize sedan that achieves an impressive 41 mpg in EPA combined fuel economy using a system that is similar in concept to Toyota’s Prius system.

The company further announced plans for a battery-electric commercial van next year, followed by a battery-electric passenger car in 2011. By 2012, the company will expand its range of hybrid offerings and will begin selling plug-in hybrids, promised Barb Samardzich, vice president of powertrain engineering for Ford.

Consumers are clamoring for General Motors to offer its eagerly anticipated Chevrolet Volt electric car, and the company promises that its engineers are toiling around the clock to meet a deadline of December 2010 for that car’s availability. But the expected $40,000 price tag for a Chevy sedan has a lot of interested shoppers understandably choking to inhale.

Maybe a stylish Cadillac coupe would be more palatable, so the company showed off the Converj, a luxury coupe that features the Volt’s electric drivetrain, which the GM has now dubbed “Voltec.”

Electric-enthusiast darling Tesla was on hand, showing off its very limited production $109,000 two-seat sports car derived from the Lotus Elise. Such cars are of limited value, but the company is at least delivering electric cars to customers, which puts it in select company. Like the other manufacturers, it is also promising more practical, higher-volume products for the future. A promising development for the company was the announcement that Tesla will be supplying batteries for the promised 1,000 electric Smart minicars scheduled for sale next year.

Not to be overlooked, Chrysler showed electrified versions of several of its current production models and revealed a concept car called the Chrysler 200C, which forecasts the company’s thinking for the styling of future midsize sedans while promoting the idea of electric drive.

The question in Chrysler’s case is whether the company has the budget and the technological depth to develop such products following its separation from former parent Daimler. That company rolled out a trio of electrically powered Mercedes-Benz minicars, called Concept BlueZero.

The three subcompact hatchbacks demonstrated the company’s flexibility to offer a pure battery-electric, hybrid-electric, or fuel-cell electric drivetrain in the same basic car. This flexibility will let the company respond to consumer demand, market conditions and the development of critical components such as batteries and fuel cells.

Take a good look at all of these cars, because we will be seeing them and their successors at every auto show for the next decade. With this kind of effort, electric-drive might even cease being the technology of the future and become a technology of the present.

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