Oh My Aching Feet: Two Days on the Floor at the Detroit Auto Show

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 13, 2011

DETROIT--I've been to press days at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS, through January 22) probably a dozen (okay, maybe five) times, and it's kind of a routine. It's cold (a given in Detroit), probably snowing. You sweep in through the big glass doors of Cobo Hall, confirm your credentials, then essay forth into a brightly lit wonderland of new car models, each attended by a spokes-model and an expert wearing a better suit than I'll ever own. If the expert is European, make that suit three times better than any I'll ever own.

This year's show wasn't much different than others, though with all the electric car introductions it was far greener. I went from hybrid to plug-in hybrid to electric car, from small start-ups and big carmakers. They all want a piece of me, and they get it.

Here, distilled, are the green highlights of two days on the floor in Detroit, with my laptop case digging a groove into my shoulder. I suffer so you don't have to:

The North American Car of the Year is the Chevrolet Volt! Ho hum. That would be news if the Volt hadn't captured every other such award in the known universe (Automobile, Motor Trend, Green Car Journal, Car ... Driver, etc.), with the sole exception being Autoweek, which preferred the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe. Yes, the Volt is good--but how about a little love for the other contestants, the Nissan Leaf and the Hyundai Sonata?

Chevrolet's Volt: Ho hum, another car of the year award. (Jim Motavalli photo)GM's Rob Peterson told me, "We have a Volt customer who has driven his car 500 miles and used one gallon of gas. It's three cents a mile on electricity, versus 10 cents for gas." True, but the Leaf wouldn't have used the one gallon of gas.

Chrysler brought out the new 300, after CEO Olivier Francois told a very sad tale about how miserable he was last year, heading for his cold car in the Cobo Hall basement, knowing he had not had any new product to show. It was all very French. The 300 is assertively American (with a lot of styling overlap from the earlier model) except for the claimed 30 mpg fuel economy. Where'd that come from on an American car?

I attended the debut of the Ford Focus Electric, which was hosted by star CEO Alan Mulally and held at the huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas rather than here in Detroit. Why? The car bristles with electronic apps, which got most of the attention at CES. In fact, there was so much about what you could do with your smartphone that they didn't even mention the EV's range, which is kind of important.

The Ford Focus Electric's range? That would be 100 miles. (Jim Motavalli photo) In Detroit, I saw Mulally from across a crowded room and buttonholed him. "What's the range, Alan?" He remembered me from Vegas and put a hand on my shoulder. "One hundred miles," he said, and, slowly, imperceptibly started pulling me forward. "But Ford has a range of electrification solutions, including a plug-in hybrid with a 500-mile range." By now we were eye to eye. "Buy Ford!" he said, releasing me to sweep on.

Mulally is kind of intense, but in a good way. Later in Detroit I ran into another legendary executive, Robert Lutz, whose fortunes at multiple car companies (most recently, GM) have risen and fallen. He's the guy who said that global warming is "a crock of *...#$%," but he was a tireless champion of the Volt.

In the Motor City, Lutz declared, "Detroit is coming out of period of 30 years of struggle, but two of the Big Three had to go bankrupt first. The good thing is that the unfavorable exchange rate with Japan is gone now, the legacy costs are gone now, and today's American cars are superbly engineered, with better fuel economy than their Japanese counterparts--which look bland by comparison." Lutz' new book is called Car Guys vs. Bean Counters. Guess which one he is.

The press kit for the cute, youth-oriented Hyundai Veloster (a name widely misspelled online and in the Wall Street Journal) came in the form of a flash drive that looks like a Swiss Army knife. Can I get that through Homeland Security? The box portrayed a scissors accessory, which fortunately the actual object did not have. In Vegas, I was presented with a magnetic pin that randomly flashed colored lights. A field day for the scanners--it looked like every Hollywood bomb I ever saw. I left it in Vegas.

The Hyundai Veloster: widely misspelled. (Jim Motavalli photo)**

I finally took a ride in a Chinese-made BYD ("Build Your Dreams"). You know, it's the battery/electric car company Warren Buffett invested in. The company builds the E6 battery car, but also the $20,000 F3DM plug-in hybrid--the one I took on the makeshift track in the basement of Cobo. It was better than I thought it would be, though the interior is retro in a not particularly good way and the styling very 1986 Toyota Corolla. BYD's Patrick Duan told me that gas costs as much in China as it does in the U.S., but BYD has still managed to move only 2,000 to 3,000 F3DMs. Why? Well, $20,000 is a lot of money on Chinese wages. U.S. sales of the E6 are planned, but no one can say when (though the company had said 2010).

BMW has bought a carbon fiber plant in Washington State, and plans to use that strong, lightweight but expensive material to construct the ultra-efficient electric Megacity Vehicle it plans to introduce in 2013, Laurenz Schaffer, president of BMW's DesignworksUSA told me. When it's not working on BMWs, Designworks goes after other clients--including trains for Siemens and interiors for Dassault business jets. "We work on questions of mobility in larger urban situations, from home to car to public transit," he said.

The tiny Megacity Vehicle is designed to negotiate the huge and overcrowded megacities of tomorrow (Bangkok, Dhaka, Mumbai, London, New York). Schaffer said that BMW will create a new sub-brand for it, also including the exotic Vision EfficientDynamics hybrid supercar. I couldn't pry the name out of him.

My favorite car was the new Prius V (for "Versatile"), a minivan/crossover expansion of the world's most popular hybrid (it's the bestseller in Japan, for instance). The V isn't spectacular to look at (but "ugly as sin" seems a bit much). The takeaway is that it's just what young families ordered. Toyota has modest expectations for it, but I think it will be a hit when it arrives late next summer. At the other end of the spectrum is the Prius C Concept, a smaller four-seater with youth appeal and snazzy wheels.

The Toyota Prius V: A home run for families. (Jim Motavalli photo)By the way, Lutz called the Prius "a curiosity" when it first appeared in 2000. Two generations and two million cars later, it's clear that the Prius was more than that -- no wonder Lutz had to make amends with the Volt. Does he still think global warming is a crock, though?

There was a lot more: How could there not be? But if I keep going you'll end up as tired reading it as I was after pacing the floor for two days.

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