NEW YORK CITY—There weren’t any significant green car introductions at this year’s New York International Auto Show, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The electrics, hybrids and fuel-cell cars were on every stand, but the big players have fielded their entries already—what’s left is the task of getting them on the road and having customers buy them.
Let’s start with Ford. Mark Fields, the company’s chief operating officer and possible heir apparent to Alan Mulally as CEO, was the breakfast keynote. He was all about the 50th anniversary of the Mustang, which the company is celebrating with a special edition of the car (limited to 1,964 copies) and the repeat of a memorable stunt. When the Mustang was new and celebrated at the New York World’s Fair, Ford also took a convertible (a 1966 judging from the photos) apart and carried it up in the elevators to the 86th floor observation deck, where they reassembled it to great acclaim.
This year that stunt was repeated, and after chatting with Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, I went up there and stood on the windswept overlook at the yellow convertible thus ensconced. Ford said the Mustang is his “favorite car,” and I get him saying that, but he’s also been a huge supporter of green cars and presided over a big push in that area. Now Ford fields two plug-in hybrids, an electric car, an aluminum-bodied truck and much more.
Fields pointed out we’re headed for nine billion people on the planet, and the billion cars on the road now “could double in 20 years, then possibly double again.” That’s a very scary thought, considering we’re on the knife edge with transportation-based climate emissions now. Ford has a “blueprint for mobility,” which is good because we really need one.
Fields quoted Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” Car companies have to be leaders in sustainable mobility, because asked what they wanted today, many people would say “SUVs with more cupholders.”
I also saw the new Hyundai Sonata debuted, and liked it well enough, but most people probably missed it when company CEO Dave Zuchowski slipped in a mention that Tucson fuel-cell cars will reach their first customers in Southern California over the next few weeks. Likewise, BMW’s announcement featured an array of performance cars, but there was also a new plug-in hybrid version of the X5 that got a nod from the podium. And both the i8 plug-in hybrid and i3 electric car are headed shortly for a dealer near you. The i3 has plenty of advance orders.
Mercedes had actor Jon Hamm introduce the oh-my-god fast S63 AMG 4MATIC Coupe (“A mad sexy car for a mad man”), but Benz is shortly to bring the B-Class electric to America. Would Don Draper drive one of those if he were around now? Nah, probably not.
Also at the show, Nissan said it will offer new Leaf buyers a special deal in 25 key EV markets—free electricity. They’ll be able to use a special card to access charging stations from four big suppliers—and not get a bill for two years. Imagine getting an offer of free gas! Nissan has sold 110,000 Leafs worldwide, but CEO Carlos Ghosn has a much bigger vision for a plugged-in company than those numbers support.
Nissan executive Fred Diaz said that 85 percent of Leaf buyers are new to the brand. “They’ve never bought a Nissan before,” he said. Hey, green sells! But they want it to sell more.
So the interesting stuff was in and around the glitz, but it’s ever thus—this is an American auto show, after all. Here's a closer look at the BMW i8 on video: