In Detroit, Electric Cars on the Turntables--Whether the Public Wants Them or Not

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 13, 2016

DETROIT—Despite $2 gas, despite the public’s growing appetite for crossovers and big sport utility vehicles (Kia, of all companies, unveiled a massive luxury SUV called the Telluride), this was still a very green show.  
 The massive luxury seven-seat Hyundai Telluride concept--you bet they'll build it. This is what the public wants these days. (Jim Motavalli photo)Can I quantify that? You bet.

Chrysler unveiled the first electric minivan, the plug-in hybrid Pacifica, and we also saw a revamped plug-in Fusion from Ford (along with a $4.5 billion commitment to build more than a dozen electrified new models by 2020). Volkswagen’s Tiguan GTE, seen in Detroit as the Active Concept, will be available with a plug. Volvo’s very nice S90 sedan will come in a plug-in hybrid model—as will all the company’s cars from now on. And the $30,000, 200-mile-range Chevrolet Bolt was on the stand, too.
 The Chrysler Pacifica was under guard. But I think it's likely to be pretty cool. (Jim Motavalli photo)The fact is that automakers are committed to electrifying their fleets, whether or not customers are yet on board. They’re committed to achieving a fleet average of 54.5 mpg by 2025 via the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) process.
The $2 gas thing isn’t helping. The 116,000 electrified cars sold in 2015 was down slightly from the 123,000 sold last year. What we should be seeing is an upward trajectory if we’re going to get to 54.5.
 The Chevrolet Bolt--there's a massive 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack under there. (Jim Motavalli photo)But the automakers are making plugging in more attractive. Let’s look at what’s on the stand. I got to drive the Chevrolet Bolt at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with designer Stuart Norris in the passenger seat, and I thought it was great fun—zippy, with nice handling, a commodious back seat and a nice set of electronic controls. We already knew about the $30,000 price (after incentives) and the 200-mile range.
In Detroit, I ran into Kevin Kelly, GM’s manager of electrification communications, who told me the range has actually been certified as 200 miles plus (not sure what the plus is). The Bolt, which will was designed in Korea but will be built in Michigan, also offers 200 horsepower, a zero-to-60 time of less than seven seconds, and a 60-kilowatt-hour battery pack. I saw GM CEO Mary Barra in close proximity; the Bolt is her baby on some level.
 Ford fields the new and refreshed 2017 Ford Fusions. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Ford Fusion, built in Mexico, was refreshed for the 2017 model year—though the styling is popular and wasn’t changed much. Both hybrid and plug-in hybrid models remain in the lineup, and both were tweaked for 2017 (though the Energi’s 19 miles of all-electric range remains, with 500 miles of total range).
Speaking of Ford, its session opened with a fairly scholarly discussion about how the world is shaping up, featuring CEO Mark Fields and Executive Chairman Bill Ford. Well, it was as scholarly as it was going to get with Ryan Seacrest (who said he was wearing last night’s clothes from the Golden Globes) as moderator.
 Ye, that's Ryan Seacrest at left with Bill Ford (in the middle) and Mark Fields. (Jim Motavalli photo)Ford pointed out that the world is going from seven to nine billion people, that city traffic is a mess, and we need to fix it with mobility solutions. Fields, who introduced the topic at CES, said Ford is going from an auto company to an auto and mobility company—it wants a share of the annual $5.4 trillion that goes to transportation services. “We get literally none of that revenue,” he said.
Ford’s big news in Detroit was the introduction of a homegrown mobility solution called FordPass, which includes an app that allows users to remotely start or unlock their cars; find available parking solutions from innovative companies like FlightCar; call experts called Ford Guides 24/7; and get free stuff, including t-shirts and food discounts from McDonald’s and 7-Eleven (there will be other partners, if fast food isn’t your thing).
Taking a page from Tesla’s book, Ford will also be opening what it calls “hubs”—centers to look at what’s available and coming from the company—in four cities—New York, Shanghai, London and San Francisco. The first one will be in New York’s World Trade Center, opening later this year.

The Buick Avista Concept: C'mon, they gotta build this thing--and not just for China. (Jim Motavalli photo) I thought the Buick Avista coupe (built on the Camaro platform) was handsome and should go into production. Porsche didn’t show off its Mission-E electric concept (that glory went to two 911 Turbo models), but it did say in Detroit that it is committing $1 billion to build it by 2018. I liked the looks of Volvo’s new flagship S90 sedan, which uses the drivetrains from the XC90, including the T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid option—with 410 horsepower.
 The lovely Volvo S90 luxury sedan--it comes as a plug-in hybrid, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)Volvo sold 503,000 cars last year, its first time over a half million. Like nearly every automaker on the show floor, it had a good year in 2015—when the industry achieved 17.4 million sales in the U.S.
Honda also set a sales record in 2015, and in Detroit it unveiled an all-new, and very big, Ridgeline truck that’s somewhat out of my range—but they’ll sell tons of ‘em. I was intrigued by a new feature—music in the pickup bed. Despite there being no visible speakers, Honda’s John Mendel dropped a microphone into the bed and it was soon pumping sounds through Cobo Hall. Does your dog get to groove to this as he slides around?
 The Honda Ridgeline has speakers in the bed--for the dog, we presume. The microphone was so we could hear it. (Jim Motavalli photo)Hyundai introduced a new luxury brand, Genesis, and a whole horde of German staffers to run it. If you’re taking on BMW’s 7-Series and Mercedes’ S-Class, it makes sense to go the source. The new G90 sedan (a concept was shown earlier called the Vision G Coupe) was certainly impressive, though not especially green. In that line, partner Kia said it would be bringing out its first crossover SUV hybrid, called the Niro.
So despite the public’s somewhat fickle taste (one in three car sales are now of SUVs, and they’re headed for 40 percent of the overall market, said Ford), and continued low gas prices, the industry is still plugging in big time. It has to.

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