Five New Year's Resolutions: Rubber on the Road

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 31, 2010

This past year was so complicated for me that my major resolution for 2010 is to slow down, drink a little coffee and try to get a less rushed perspective on life. But I may end up breaking it, we'll see. Two thousand ten was also the year electric cars finally broke out of the "coming attractions" category and made it into showrooms.

Right now, you can take a Nissan Leaf for a test drive (at least in selected launch markets) or order a Chevy Volt (if you have the right zip code). By the end of 2011, many EVs will be national, and you'll be able to order them in Oshkosh as well as San Francisco, which is ground zero for all things electric. Over the next few months, the rubber will hit the road and we'll have a good idea about consumer acceptance: Will people get beyond the 100-mile range and the need to plug in? Will they buy into zero emissions, low-operating costs and the chance to "refuel" at home? The predictions are all over the map, and often colored by politics: If you like EVs, the numbers are large; if you're skeptical to begin with, you think they'll flop.

So, given all that, here are my five auto-themed resolutions, with some of the others not being suitable for this family website:

I take Tom and Ray for a ride in my hydrogen car.
For the first half of 2011 I'll be the custodian of a Toyota Highlander fuel-cell vehicle, with a 300-mile range. Thanks to Car Talk supporter Tom Sullivan launching his Maine-to-Florida hydrogen highway with a station near my home base in Connecticut, I got picked for the Toyota trial. It will be great fun, even if the station is 40 miles away, at Proton Energy. The second station will be built in Braintree, Massachusetts, not far from Car Talk HQ, later in the year. Nine other stations (each 300 miles apart) will be constructed over two years, completing the East Coast highway.

The iconic Mazda Miata, 1996 edition. (Flickr/HotRodII)I buy a Mazda Miata.
I've been threatening to do this for more than 10 years. I want one badly, and have ever since their cute, Lotus-derived snouts first poked their way into my consciousness at launch in 1990. Early on, I drove a Miata around the track at Lime Rock Park, and loved everything about it--a Lotus Elan, but one that actually worked! British cars were appealing, but heartbreaking to own--electric supplier Lucas was the prince of darkness, after all. The brilliance of the Miata was and is that it's a bread-and-butter Mazda under the skin, an appliance in the guise of sports car. That works for me. I'm getting one, and I have a distinct preference for the clean-looking first generation cars. That's good, actually, because the early ones are really cheap now. I figure I can snare a decent example for less than $3,000, but we'll see. Do you also have an auto addiction that might get satisfied in 2011?

I finish my manuscript.
I'm writing a book tentatively called High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry for Rodale, and it's due early in the year. I'm going to be tracing the high-stakes race to finally get cars like the Volt (GM), Leaf (Nissan), Karma (Fisker) and Model S (Tesla) on the market. It's an incredible crap shoot--Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal predicts, in the trailer for Chris Paine's new film The Revenge of the Electric Car, that Nissan could even go out of business if the Leaf fails. I think that's extreme--the company makes a few other cars--but the Leaf is a billion-dollar international gamble with no sure outcome. My hope is that I'll be able to close the book with cheerful reports of EV sales exceeding expectations, but I'm not writing the end yet.

The prototype Fisker Karma Sunset convertible in New York. (Jim Motavalli photo)I drive the Fisker Karma (before anyone else).
This is the high-performance plug-in hybrid built by the highly regarded Danish-born car designer Henrik Fisker, which has a March launch date. Sometime early in the new year they are finally supposed to give auto journalists like me rides in it--up to now, the car has been under tight control. So far, the only person outside the company to drive the Fisker Karma is a prince of Denmark, or at least his driver, at the COP15 talks in Copenhagen. I think I had an inside track on getting my hands on a Karma, but then I reported in the New York Times that prototypes weigh 5,000 pounds, so they may not like me as much as they did. Oh well. I'm still really a nice guy, honest. Fisker's Russell Datz told me that the company will get only one chance at introducing this car, and if it's disappointing, they'll never hear the end of it. I understand that, but we journalists are a greedy lot.

I keep cars in perspective.
Another one of my books, Breaking Gridlock, is about public transit, and it has some shocking things to say about American dependence on automobiles and the neglect of what had been a pretty robust network of long-distance rail. The coming of the car devastated it so that 300,000 miles of rail became 150,000 miles. It's too bad we didn't know then what we know now about car pollution -- it may have cooled the jets of city planners who, at the urging of GM and others, got rid of all those noisy streetcars. Now we're struggling to rebuild with a modern light rail system, and it's a slow process--leaving us way behind Europe. I was once in Switzerland and took a series of trains to visit a friend living in a tiny mountain community in the Alps. I got out of the last train and walked across the street to his place. Try doing that in America, the most car-dependent country on earth, where even big cities are lucky if they have any rail link at all. So I'm a car guy who's always sympathetic to car-free zones, light rail, bicycle trails and pedestrian paths, buses and other transit options. Trains, planes and automobiles all have their place--but we've let it get a bit lopsided.

So Happy New Year! All best wishes from Car Talk Plaza, where we're all looking forward to peering under America's hoods and taking your calls in 2011.

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