Glitter, Glitz…and Fuel Economy

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 12, 2012

NEW YORK CITY—Auto sales may be in the doldrums in Europe, but they’re going great guns in the U.S. Nissan’s CEO, Carlos Ghosn, introduced a new Altima at the New York International Auto Show with a targeted 38 highway mpg—and pointed out that the company’s sales were up 14 percent in the U.S. last year. At 8.2 American market share last year, it wants 10 percent.

Nissan's Infiniti LE Concept is part of the company's bid to increase market share. (Jim Motavalli photo)That’s what all automakers are after—a bigger piece of the pie. Nissan's bid is made more interesting by the fact that it’s betting on electric cars. A standout at the show was the company’s new Infiniti LE Concept, a gorgeous and more upscale four-door sedan on the Leaf platform (to appear in 2014). Tesla has proven that sexy electric cars can sell, even if they’re expensive; Nissan is seconding that with the LE. Here’s a look at it on video:

The company has sold 11,000 Leafs to Americans so far and, looked at globally, Ghosn said the car is “the top-selling zero-emission vehicle in history.” No doubt, though that history is not studded with top sellers. The Vanguard Citicar was a 1970s star with 2,600 sold, and another 2,000 as the more refined ComutaCar. But my guess is that 4,599 of the people who bought these basic lead-acid battery cars regretted the purchase—they’re pretty awful. One recently limped into a meeting of our local electric car club, and it needs help getting up mild hills.

But that was then. At the show I visited with the revitalized Smart, now part of the Mercedes brand in the U.S. Tracey Matura, general manager of the Smart brand here, told me that the company has high hopes for the third generation of its Smart electric drive, which is now on the road in Mercedes’ Car2Go auto sharing operation. I had some reservations that a sharing operation with just one two-seat car, and a plug-in one to boot, would work, but you can’t argue with success—the program signed up 6,000 members in the first 100 days, and those folks took more than 25,000 trips already. It helps that it’s San Diego, one of the top EV markets in the U.S.

Heiko Schmidt and Tracey Matura with the new and improved Smart car. Electrics are getting renewed focus. (Jim Motavalli photo)Matura told me the new EV Smart will have true 100-mile range, acceleration about the same as the gas car, and 75 mph capability (from 60). The EV will benefit from a “robust marketing push,” she said. It needs it, because it’s pretty low profile now. The second generation car was saddled with a $599 a month lease price at the same time a Chevrolet Volt was $350. Smart doesn’t have a new lease price yet, but it will be a lot lower. And, of course, the Smart will now benefit from a much higher profile in Mercedes dealerships. That’s a major reason why last month’s sales were up 135 percent from the previous March, to 999.

Heiko Schmidt, a Smart spokesman, told me that Smart buyers will be able to get their electric drive across the product range, meaning battery-powered convertibles. Aside from the Tesla Roadster, I couldn’t think of another EV convertible—am I missing something?

A new Toyota Avalon was introduced in New York. (Jim Motavalli)Jim Kliesch, research director in the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out at the show that “the last two years have been really tough on the auto industry. But it’s rebounding, and now we’re seeing innovations like start-stop technology [“micro-hybrids” that shut down at stoplights] in more and more cars to make fuel economy gains. It makes sense, because for automakers it’s something like a $300 cost to yield three to four percent fuel economy gains. It doesn’t take much driving with $4 a gallon gas to recoup that investment.”

For Kliesch, the “biggest surprise” of show was the rather unlikely Dodge Ram 1500. “It’s clearly ‘game on’ at Chrysler’s truck division,” he said. “What was supposed to be a bland mid-cycle refresh turned into a seminar on fuel savings through smart engineering.” Features on the truck include eight-speed automatic, stop-start, mass reductions, electric power steering, improved aerodynamics (including grille shutters), and auto-adjusting air suspension. It’s not even a hybrid “That sound you hear is Ford and GM scrambling” to catch up, Kliesch said.

Also at the show was a delegation from Ceres, the green investment group, armed with a new report saying that the Big Three are likely to profit handsomely from greening their fleets. They may have been pushed there by federal CAFE standards that demand 54.5 mpg by 2025, but the investment is likely to bring in an additional $2.4 billion for them in 2020—a 6.3 percent increase. The report estimates that full electrics will have 1.1 percent of U.S. sales by 2015, with 1.5 percent plug-in hybrid, 3.6 percent hybrid and 3.5 percent diesel—in all a nearly 10 percent market share for green.

Dan Meszler of Meszler Engineering Services and a contributor to the Ceres report, said that Americans “don’t rationalize the value of fuel economy. If they did, there’d be no reason for federal fuel economy programs in the first place.” True, but car buying is fundamentally an irrational act, anyway. If car buyers were rational, SUVs would never have taken off. Did you ever hear that less than 10 percent of them ever go off-road, and yet people caught up in some kind of emotional need for freedom buy them for exactly that ability?

Greener SUVs: The 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe will get 33 mpg on the highway. (Jim Motavalli photo)Before I close, let me note that I spent my second day at the auto show away from the main floor, looking at the unsung entries too offbeat (or too broke) to be in the spotlight. It was well worth it. I spent time with Stephen Wynne, the CEO of the DeLorean Motor Company, who has not only revived the gull-winged brand that came to grief in Northern Ireland in 1982, but is planning a line of 300 electric cars that will go on sale next year. Wynne’s enthusiasm is infectious—the Liverpool native has been working on DeLoreans for 30 years. And they make imminent sense as battery cars, especially since the platform has been significantly lightened. But the bottom line is a bit sobering: $95,000.

Stephen Wynne and his electric DeLorean. (Jim Motavalli photo)I saw the realization of a very good idea: The MV-1 is a purpose-built, natural-gas-powered van with an integrated wheelchair ramp. And I also checked in on Terrafugia, which is inching forward on the daunting task of getting its car-plane approved by all the necessary federal agencies. I’m a sucker for flying cars, having spent a day 10 years ago with Richard Fulton, inventor of the Airphibian, which actually did get certified to fly back in 1950.

The wheelchair-accessible MV-1, with natural gas capability, will be sold to taxi fleets. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Terrafugia Transition is far more refined than the Airphibian. I watched its wings fold up, after which it was ready for a 35-mpg run across the country. Made mostly from ultra-light carbon fiber, the vehicle weighs something like 970 pounds. Richard Gersh, the company’s vice president of business development, told me that Terrafugia’s quest for lightness extended to making the windshield not out of heavy glass but of a polycarbonate sandwich.

“The Department of Transportation has classified us as an airplane, and they’ve been very accommodating in giving us extra time as we develop the safety systems you’d see in passenger cars,” Gersh said. That includes a reprieve on advanced airbags, which some EV makers (Tesla and Wheego come to mind) have also received. As you can imagine, insurance and financing companies will have to write new rules for flying cars.

The good news is that the Transition has now had a successful test flight. Take a look at the video —it’s almost like the Wright Brothers taking off. Terrafugia hopes to begin selling the flying car as early as late this year, should the stars and government agencies align.

Ray wants a test flight. Told of this, Cliff Allen, Terrafugia’s vice president of sales, e-mailed back, “We’re all BIG FANS! We’ll be completing drive and flight-testing throughout 2012, with first deliveries either late this year or early next year. We’ll plan Ray’s test drive and flight right around the time of that first delivery.”

The New York International Auto Show is on until April 15. Visit it here, and visit, Buzz, the show’s social networking feed, here.

The media going nuts over the new SRT Viper. (Jim Motavalli photo)As I was leaving the show, I saw a row of supercars from Bugatti, McLaren and others, and it got me wondering if the days of such V-8 and V-12 monsters are numbered. After all, even AMG Mercedes are downsizing their engines and adding start-stop technology. Here are my video musings on the subject:

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