Sunday, January 14, 2007

At the auto show, many cars, many truths

Saturday, January 13, 2007
At the auto show, many cars, many truths
Warren Brown / The Washington Post

DETROIT -- Automotive exhibits, such as the North American International Auto Show here, represent a collection of truths. The temptation, for reasons of easier public consumption, is to present them as one theme. But that approach speaks more to marketing than it does to accuracy.

It is better to examine truths separately, an exercise facilitated in this instance by the more than 750 vehicles, concepts and production models on display in cavernous Cobo Center.

Each vehicle speaks to a different reality. We'll use this limited space to examine those speaking the loudest this year at the 100th anniversary of the Detroit show.

Truth: The world's car companies are global enterprises with global intelligence. They are run by people who are well aware that oil is a finite resource being depleted by rapidly growing global demand. Most of their cars and trucks run on fossil fuels. The survival of their businesses depends on the development, design, manufacture and sale of publicly acceptable automobiles that use less of the stuff.

General Motors' concept Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric car and Mercedes-Benz's Smart ForTwo city car get the most attention here.

The Volt is an attractive family car with a lithium-ion battery that can be charged at home or office on a standard 110-volt circuit. When fully charged, electric power alone can drive the car 40 miles before a three-cylinder, fossil-fuel engine starts to generate more electricity.

Huge amounts of recyclable materials -- plastic derived from discarded water bottles, for example -- are used in the Volt, thus increasing its environmental friendliness. How? Each Volt car would represent the equivalent of 400 plastic water bottles not going into a landfill somewhere.

Suppliers, such as General Electric, have come up with interesting weight-reducing solutions, such as taking the pounds out of the Volt's transparent canopy by using a polycarbonate plastic (GE's trademarked Lexan) coated with a thin layer of glass. The Lexan canopy weighs 50 percent less than glass. Lower weight means the car's gas-electric power system works less and uses less energy.

Success of the Volt and the development and sale of similar models being considered by Ford, Toyota and visionary entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin will depend on the development of an affordable, reliable, robust lithium battery.

It may take five to 10 years to bring the Volt to market. But what is important is that GM, still the biggest car company in the world, has committed to spending billions of dollars to develop the Volt and similar electric vehicles. This column sees that as a very good thing.

The Smart ForTwo from Mercedes-Benz, introduced in 1998, is to be available in the United States in the first quarter of 2008. About 770,000 ForTwo cars have been sold in Europe and Asia. The updated European model on display here is much improved over the original in terms of safety, comfort, ease of use, amenities and appearance. The U.S. version will get those changes as well as a consumer-friendly automatic transmission. Mercedes-Benz plans to bring the Smart ForTwo to the United States at a price competitive with the least expensive Korean car, roughly $11,000 to $15,000.

The ForTwo, depending on the model chosen, can get 50 miles per gallon. (I once drove a diesel version that got nearly 60 mpg.) I am so convinced of its safety and reliability that I am planning to drive one coast-to-coast in the United States.

Truth: American families want attractive, affordable, safe economy and mid-size cars. They resent the idea that "family" in past automotive thinking has all too often meant "boring" and that "economy" too frequently has meant "cheap."

GM, at long last, has gotten the message. It is offering a bevy of market-ready cars as proof. They include the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura, priced in the $20,000 range, fully capable of going against successful mid-size rivals such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, which also have been given more family appeal.

Ford, somewhat yielding to American demands that it sell the European version of its Focus compact car in the United States, at least is bringing to the nation's economy-car buyers a new Focus that looks and feels as good as the European model, though it continues to use the same old American market platform.

Nissan will ensure that none of its competitors can rest in the arena of compact and mid-size family cars. Nissan's new Altima sedan is a hands-down winner inside and out, and the company is showing something more at the Detroit show -- a concept Altima coupe that is attracting as much attention as the concept Honda Accord Coupe a few aisles away.

Truth: Big trucks are forever, even in an era of rising fuel prices. Just because the truck poseurs -- people who bought them more for image than need -- are leaving the market doesn't mean that big pickup trucks are going away.

Anyone doubting that should look at the big-truck offering from greener-than-thou Toyota -- the Tundra CrewMax. It is designed to go against the 2007 North American truck of the year, the Chevrolet Silverado.

This is the beginning of an ugly fight. The Tundra CrewMax is entering the ring with a 5.7-liter, 382-horsepower V-8 engine. The comparable Silverado has been doing extremely well with its 5.3-liter, 315-horsepower V-8.

Interestingly, Toyota isn't bragging about fuel economy in this brawl. Its new CrewMax gets 16 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway, about the same as the Silverado.

To the extent that there is something that might pass for a single theme at this year's Detroit show, it is represented in the one best characterizing the truck battle: More power, less fuel.

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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