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Green cars to take floor at Detroit auto show

Posted: 18 Jan 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:green technologies? Detroit auto show? electric cars?

The 2008 Pontiac Solstice convertible roadster: Now this is a car you could love.

When the public enters the 2008 North American International Auto Show on Jan. 19, they'll find cars as green as spring. Every major automaker is swearing its allegiance to green technologies this year, and in some odd instances, green meets classic Detroit mean.

Alternative fuel
Take the Hummer HX biofuel concept, on display during this week's press preview of the show, which looks like what would happen if a miniature tank mated with a Jeep. The HX is much smaller than the gas-hungry H3 2008 gleaming on display next to it, and it runs on E85, fuel that's 85 percent ethanol.

General Motors Corp., in fact, was the most verbose automaker on its alternative energy efforts during the press preview. GM launched its environmental bent with an announcement that it's investing in Coskata, a start-up that says it can make biofuel out of agricultural and municipal waste for less than $1 a gallon.

But the green message still suffers from clarity of vision, with GM and other automakers introducing concepts, and in some cases in-production vehicles, that are all over the place in their approaches to alternative energy. So if gasoline isn't the standard in 10 years, what will be: hydrogen, ethanol, electricity, some sort of hybrid, or something like Coskata's waste-based biofuel? Don't ask the automakers; they don't have a clue, either.

GM showed that power still counts for something with Monday's introduction of the Cadillac 2009 CTS-V, its fastest Cadillac yet with a 550 horsepower engine, to compete alongside other luxurious-yet-speedy vehicles such as the BMW M3.

Electric cars
Knowing the CTS-V won't help solve the auto industry's reliance on gasoline, GM also showed off the Cadillac Provoq fuel-cell crossover concept. The Provoq is powered by electricity, uses no petroleum, and emits nothing but water.

GM also had on display its Chevy Equinox fuel-cell crossover vehicle, another of the automaker's attempts to demonstrate that green doesn't have to be small. GM just began tapping consumers in Southern California, New York, and Washington, D.C., to test market about 100 of the vehicles, explained a Chevrolet spokeswoman on the floor who identified herself as Sherry. (Sherry and a colleague standing next to her were nearly identical, with long black tresses, false eyelashes, snug blue-leather jackets and black slacks, but it'd be an insult to call these women show-floor models. When it came to GM's environmental efforts, they were fully versed).

Consumers who volunteer and are selected by GM to test the fuel-cell Equinox for three months don't have to pay a dime for the auto or the fuel, but are required to post public blogs on the Web about their experiences, and be willing to fuel up at one of few available hydrogen stations, Sherry explained. GM teamed up with Shell to make a hydrogen station available in Westchester County, and the government controls stations in Southern California and Washington, Sherry said.

Fuel efficiency
GM's 2008 full-sized Chevy Tahoe Hybrid on display, however, will be in full production this year, offering about 21 miles per gallon in the city. Fully equipped, it runs about $50,000. In 2009, GM will offer a Silverado Hybrid pick-up truck with a 26-gallon gas tank that will run the truck 500 miles before a fill-up is needed.

Over in Ford's area of the show, the automaker was getting attention for a candy-apple red Verve concept car on display. It's about time Ford came up with a cool concept for a small car. Verve features sleek side windows, a cute hump of a hood, an aggressive front grille, and its windshield seamlessly melds into a panoramic glass roof.

Verve is the inspiration for new small cars Ford plans to start selling in 2010, which are designed to appeal to "'millennials', the fastest growing segment of the population, as well as their parents," according to Ford's press materials.

Clearly more suited for moms and dads is Ford's new Flex model, to debut this year. It's a six- or seven-person crossover that is clearly neither van nor SUV, but something entirely its own. It looks a little like a Honda Element, yet not quite so boxy.

The Flex on display at the auto show is retro brown with a cream-colored roof, sort of like an updated Woody. "The Flex has a really different, unique personality," said chief design engineer Richard Gresens, who stood by his vehicle. "There's so many vanilla things out there," he said, acknowledging that Ford has put out its own share of "vanilla" vehicles. But the Flex, he said, represents a "breakthrough" for Ford.

Like any big personality, you'll either love or hate the Flex. (This writer, always appreciative of big personalities, admits to strong attraction.) One nifty option is a minirefrigerator in the center back console that keeps drinks and food cold for a road trip, and can be set to freeze to keep the tykes' popsicles fresh on the way to the beach.

Ford, meanwhile, strived to demonstrate the possibilities in navigation with its Ford Explorer concept vehicle. A 3D, glowing green compass, with topographical map, sits on top of the dashboard. The Explorer concept features Ford's "EcoBoost" technology, designed to deliver up to 20 percent better fuel economy and 15 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions, and "builds upon today's affordable gasoline engine," according to Ford. The automaker plans to make 500,000 EcoBoost-equipped vehicles within the next five years.

There were a handful of just-for-the-fun-of-it concepts, too, like the Mazda Taiki. This little space-age monster featured gull-wing doors and rear quarter panels that shroud the wheels. When this writer jokingly asked the Japanese engineer standing by when she could buy it, the answer came in the form of a cruel chuckle, suggesting if-and-when something like the Taiki is available from Mazda, only those capable of handling it need apply.

This year's Detroit auto show doesn't disappoint on new concepts and styles, demonstrating imagination is alive and well in the auto industry. Style is a matter of personal choice, of course, and this writer got the biggest smile of the day when happening upon the 2008 Pontiac Solstice convertible roadster. Now this is a car you could love.

But if you're looking to get some definitive direction on the future of alternative energy, you won't find it here. Just plenty of efforts and concepts, and a respectable number of hybrid energy models for 2008 and beyond.

- Mary Hayes Weier
InformationWeek




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