The 2012 Detroit Auto Show: Everybody's Gone Green

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 11, 2012

DETROIT, MICHIGAN—If the North American International Auto Show has a theme this year, it’s that the auto industry is back in a big way, especially the Big Three, and for the entire industry green is no longer a side story—it’s the whole event.

I was amazed to sit through Toyota’s dog and pony show, hosted by Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer, in which he didn’t talk about anything but green cars. To be sure, the event of the day was the introduction of the Prius C, the latest addition to the family of the world’s most popular hybrid car, but still.

“Ten years ago, there were just 10 gas-electric hybrids,” Lentz said. “Now the hybrid has arrived and every automaker has them. Hybrids have energized our industry.” Indeed, they have—the Prius was the first car to bring electricity into our modern field of vision. I liked the sawed-off (13.2 feet) Prius C just fine, and was captivated both by its 53 mpg (“the highest city fuel efficiency of any car in America without a plug”) and by its price—which will be “well under” $19,000. This is an excellent package, the country’s best mpg and the lowest-priced hybrid.

The Ford Fusion was (with the Dodge Dart) the hit of the show. (Jim Motavalli photo)A plug-in hybrid version of the Prius will be on the market in a couple months, giving Toyota a formidable package to rival that of Ford—which showed two hybrid versions, including a plug-in (“Energi”), of the redesigned 2013 Fusion. The Fusion was the hit of the show, along with the revitalized Dodge Dart, which could be the most fruitful result of the Chrysler/Fiat partnership.

The Dart name was originally retired in 1976, an event that sent both me and the Magliozzi brothers into mourning. The new Dart, which is very cool looking (the Fusion has a slight edge), sits atop a stretched chassis sourced from the Alfa-Romeo Guilietta, a much-loved four-door sedan on the world market that could find its way to our shores eventually. There’s no hybrid version, but the four-cylinder engines (one a turbo) offer great fuel economy in the compact segment—up to 40 mpg on the highway.

The compact Dodge Dart, reviving a hallowed name around Car Talk Plaza, is a big bet for Chrysler. Under the skin: an Alfa-Romeo Giulietta. (Jim Motavalli photo)After these turbo-charged introductions the debut of the Honda Accord Coupe concept seemed a bit anti-climactic. Underneath the spoilers and bright red pearlescent paint the car was pretty familiar looking. Honda stumbled badly with its too-bland redesigned Civics, and it needs to get the magic back. Honda has been making Accords in Ohio for 30 years, a fact it symbolized with the display of the very first one to roll off the line in Marysville. (On loan from the Henry Ford Museum!)

John Mendel, an executive vice president of American Honda, said natural disaster, in the form of Japanese tsunamis and Thai flooding, hurt the company badly in 2011. “We had to cut 200,000 units from the production schedule,” he said. “And our competitors picked up a lap or two while we were in the pits. But now we’re again on full power and firing on all cylinders.” Oy, all those metaphors!

Honda has built 11 million Accords since 1976, and the model has picked up 26 Car and Driver “10 Best” awards, but what has it done for us lately? The auto industry is unforgiving—if an illustrious history guaranteed much of anything then Packard and Pierce Arrow would still be going concerns.

The Honda Accord looked snazzy, but it wasn’t a dramatic departure from past Accords. (Jim Motavalli photo)The previous day, the Acura division tried to stir up some good mojo by offering no less than three concept cars, including a new (again, too conservative) RDX compact SUV, a sporty ILX sedan (better) and the grand return of the much-fabled NSX. For that one, Honda brought out no less a dignitary than Takanobu Ito, the president and CEO of Honda Motor—who as a young engineer had worked on the original NSX supercar. Obviously, the new one is a labor of love, but it might help the company get back on track—literally, because Ito said they were going to race it.

I’d be happy if I was Hyundai, because the Elantra—a car I’ve long touted—won the North American Car of the Year award. Cars like the Elantra are why Honda has to sharpen its game—not all the lost sales were due to tsunamis. The Elantra is pirating Civic buyers, with 40 mpg and a very sharp package for $17,000 and change.

The show also offered an interesting start-up in the form of Via Motors, which is launching plug-in hybrid versions of several big (read, very big) GM vehicles, including a Silverado pickup truck, an Express van and a Suburban. The company, which has some strong GM connections (including former vice chairman and auto celebrity Bob Lutz as a board member), is claiming it can get 100 miles per gallon equivalent out of these big-gun fuel lovers, and also offer contractors and other customers the opportunity of mobile power (in the form of 110- and 220-volt outlets).

The Suburban features a monster 402-horsepower electric motor that should duplicate the power and hauling ability of the original vehicles. Via COO Alan Perriton demonstrated the lightness of the motor by bench-pressing the thing, but since it weighs 108 pounds he put it down rather quickly.

Via is using lithium-ion batteries from A123, which is gaining increasing prominence in the space—its batteries are also in the BMW 3- and 5-Series ActiveHybrids. “It’s great that another major manufacturer is using our technology,” said Jason Forcier, a vice president at A123. “It’s exciting, because these BMWs are two great examples of cars that consumers will be able to buy.” An all-new 3-Series made its debut in Detroit, and the hybrid is an important part of the lineup.

There was much more at the show, of course. Smart, which is bringing in a new model in 2014, showed a cute pickup truck as a stopgap measure—and announced that its Car2Go sharing service is expanding into Washington, D.C. And I finally got to see the Tata eMO, which is a tiny electric concept car from India. Although Tata (maker of the Nano) has no production plans, it took the trouble to build the car to pass U.S. crash testing. The minuscule car has dual induction motors, liquid-cooled lithium-ion batteries and a nicely upright design that offered plenty of rear-seat headroom.

The Tata eMO is an ambitious EV concept, prepped for the American market and built to sell at a very affordable price point. (Jim Motavalli photo)All in all, a pretty good show. And, it goes without saying, very, very green. Here’s a closer look at the Tata eMO on video:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One