Lessons from the New York International Auto Show

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 02, 2013

NEW YORK CITY— I’m decompressing from the madness of four days covering the New York International Auto Show (which continues until April 7), and I’ve had time to gain some perspective on events there. Is the industry finally going deep green? Have the environmentalists won? Not quite yet.

The bottom line is the industry is embracing electrification, but cautiously. Hybrids and plug-in hybrids are much more prevalent than battery electrics, which reflect both the tepid marketplace so far and the less-than-optimal range offered by today’s batteries. But read on to see how the Nissan Leaf has been dramatically improved.

The Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid on New York's mean streets. (Jim Motavalli photo)The show featured a fair number of big SUV introductions, because there’s still gold in them thar hills. But very few of them will be deployed without hybrid versions. I went to the introduction of the Nissan Pathfinder hybrid, and now we’re talking about 26 mpg combined. Not bad, considering the 2010 4WD Pathfinder was 16 mpg combined. The seven-passenger Pathfinder benefits from being on a car chassis now—it’s a crossover. So add the hybrid drivetrain to that and what you get is not exactly a member of Greenpeace, but it’s incrementally better than any Pathfinder ever.

And speaking of utility vehicles, outside the show I got a chance to briefly drive the Ford Fusion Energi, which is the company’s second plug-in hybrid (the C-Max Energi is already on the road). New York’s mean streets weren’t ideal for a test ride, but I got to wring it out a little in battery mode. Ideally, there’s 21 miles of range available, but cold days—and using the heater—will sap some of that.

The BMW Active Tourer concept unveiled a new design language--and showcased the new three-cylinder engine. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Fusion is a nice package in most respects. It accelerated with alacrity in zero emission mode, handled well, and offered a nicely appointed interior. It disappoints only in available trunk space. I understand that there’s a 7.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery back there, but as a ground-up design I think Ford engineers could have found a way of avoiding compromising the cargo space. The battery, by the way, is small enough that you don’t get the full federal income tax credit—it’s $3,750 instead of $7,500 as in the Chevy Volt.

I also drove the new made-in-U.S.A (Tennessee, actually) 2013 Nissan Leaf around lower Manhattan, and like the way the company responded to consumers. They wanted a cheaper car. Check (entry price is now $28,800). They wanted charging improvements. Check (a new 110 cable). They wanted a heater that didn’t sap so much power. Check (it’s now a heat pump). They wanted more interior convenience features. Check (a new automatic climate control and energy-efficient Bose stereo option). Here’s the new car on video:

Subaru unveiled its first hybrid, a version of its Impreza-based XV Crosstrek. You get 31 mpg combined, which is reasonable enough, though the standard vehicle with the CVT tranny is 28 mpg. It’s something of a cautious dip into electrification from the company, though there’s undoubtedly more to come. “We have embraced vehicle electrification as a key theme for the future of Subaru,” said Tomohiko Ikeda, global sales and marketing with parent company Fuji Heavy Industries.

As my friend Jim Henry noted in Forbes, “The Subaru hybrid is long-awaited because the Subaru brand and ecology are a logical match. Subaru buyers tend to be an outdoorsy group, and it’s natural they would be interested in cutting down on tailpipe emissions.” Indeed. Have you noticed that Outback wagons carry the “PZEV” title on their tailgates? That stands for “partial zero emission vehicle,” a California designation, and explaining what it means it would take the rest of this page.

The Subaru XT Crosstrek Hybrid improves fuel economy, but not by a huge amount. (Jim Motavalli photo)Some of the most exciting news happened offstage. Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors (which wasn’t even in New York this year) announced they will collaborate on a B-Class Electric Drive model that will appear on the American market next year. The car will have 115-mile range and speeds of up to 100 mph. I think this is a match made in heaven, which also brings in the really cool and previously unseen B-Class to America.

And over in New Jersey, I had a vivid driving experience in a three-cylinder 1-Series BMW. That car isn’t headed for production, but the engine will soon be seen in the plug-in hybrid and ultra-high-performance i8. It was also in the sub-1-Series Active Tourer concept that BMW did show in New York. Here's the three-cylinder BMW on video:

But it’s the engine itself that’s the big news. Three-cylinder engines can and will offer the same performance as four-cylinders, and they could become a staple on the roads of tomorrow. The tendency with three pots is for the engine to shake front to back, but BMW has addressed this with a balance shaft. In an actual 1-Series production car, I’d expect more than 40 mpg on the highway, with full Ultimate Driving Machine performance. The car we tested ran on gasoline, but the forthcoming diesel version should do even better.

So even without any new battery cars revolving on show stands, it was still an electrifying auto show.

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