It could be called the year of the electric vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
E-vehicle unveilings were plentiful although none quite ready for prime time. They do indicate the direction the auto industry is headed.
Here are show highlights:
Chrysler Hints at Future Electric-Range Technology
The unveiled Chrysler 200C EV electric-drive sedan represents a “coming-out party for the new Chrysler (LLC),” says the auto maker's vice chairman and president.
Jim Press says the concept car underscores what is possible at Chrysler, if the auto maker is given a chance to succeed.
Chrysler and General Motors Corp. currently are devising a business plan to satisfy terms of a multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded bridge loan approved by the Bush Admin.
However, the 200C EV is not being considered for production as Chrysler's first electric-drive vehicle. Nor does it hint at the next-generation Chrysler 300 sedan.
“The 300 is going in a?different direction,” design chief Ralph Gilles tells Ward's.
The 200C EV features a range-extender powertrain configuration that affords 400 miles (644 km) of driving without refueling, including 40 miles (64 km) of all-electric, zero-emissions travel.
It joins four other vehicles in Chrysler's electric-drive stable — two Jeeps and one each from the Dodge and Chrysler brands.
— By Eric Mayne
GM Taps LG Chem for Battery
General Motors Corp. selects South Korea's LG Chem Ltd. and its Compact Power Inc. subsidiary in Troy, MI, to supply lithium-ion cells for the upcoming Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle.
The auto maker also reveals it will locate a manufacturing plant in Michigan to assemble the cells into the t-shaped battery pack for the Volt, pending the approval of state incentives.
“GM is back in the battery business,” says GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, in reference to the auto maker's EV1 electric vehicle from 1996.
GM has not determined an exact site for the plant, but Gary Cowger, group vice president-manufacturing and labor relations, hints at the Southeast region, near the Volt's assembly facility.
“We're building the Volt at Hamtramck (a Detroit suburb), so it makes sense to put (the battery facility) in Michigan for logistical reasons,” he says. “The state also put together a good (incentives) package.”
— By James M. Amend
Ford to Bring E-Vehicle to Market in 2011
Ford Motor Co. will offer a full-electric vehicle based on the Focus C-car platform in 2011, through a newly formed partnership with Magna International Inc.
The battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, as Ford dubs it, will be powered by an advanced lithium-ion battery and have a range of up to 100 miles (161 km) on a single charge, the auto maker says, noting it expects annual sales volume of the vehicle to be 5,000 to 10,000 units.
The BEV's exterior styling will be different than the Focus, Ford says, declining to reveal what the new vehicle will look like.
Speaking at the North American International Auto Show here, Executive Chairman Bill Ford says the electrification of the automobile is the direction customers, and the country, want the auto maker to take.
“I think that is where society would like to see the entire industry go, and Ford is going to lead that charge,” he says.
— By Byron Pope
Lexus Debuts Hybrid for Rich Folks
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus brand debuts the all-new HS 250h.
The '10 HS 250h, going on sale in the U.S. in late summer, is the luxury brand's first dedicated hybrid-electric vehicle and also the first in its lineup to be powered by a 4-cyl. engine.
A top Lexus official last month told Ward's that despite a drop in fuel prices from last summer, he believes the HS 250h will be a success, based on the fact many Prius buyers have 6-figure incomes and some already have a luxury car in their garage.
“We have Toyota dealers who tell us they can only sell (Priuses) that are fully loaded,” Mark Templin, group vice president and general manager tells Ward's.
“People don't want base models, he says. “That tells me those customers want more. They're probably good candidates for Lexus hybrid cars.”
— By Christie Schweinsberg
VW to Offer Hybrid, Diesel Options
Volkswagen AG has four new core, U.S.-focused products set for debut over the next couple of years, and all will feature diesel and hybrid/electric powertrain options.
The four vehicles include a revamped Jetta due in 2010; the all-new midsize sedan that will be built beginning 2011 at a plant under construction in Chattanooga, TN; plus two other Polo-sized models, Volkswagen of America President and CEO Stefan Jacoby says in a media backgrounder behind the scenes at the North American International Auto Show here.
The new models are considered critical to VWA's goal of selling 800,000 vehicles annually by 2018. Last year, the auto maker delivered 223,127 light-vehicles in the U.S., Ward's data shows.
— By David E. Zoia
Mercedes Steps Up Green Development
Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz in first-half 2009 will launch a fuel-cell-powered car, at least six months earlier than expected.
The low-volume, global rollout will pave the way for a production-series, all-electric Mercedes car in 2010. Like its fuel-cell precursor, the electric car will borrow inspiration from a variation of the Mercedes BlueZero concept vehicle unveiled.
The electric car leverages expertise the auto maker has acquired from an electric-drive program planned for its economy-minded Smart brand, as well as a battery-development joint venture formally launched last month with Germany-based conglomerate Evonik Industries AG.
Chrysler Stands Its Ground
Chrysler LLC Chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli fires back at critics who allege the auto maker does not deserve taxpayer-backed federal funds, saying uninformed opinions “created a cloud” that confused consumers.
“The best way to repair that is what we're doing — come out boldly,” Nardelli says, displaying a combative side he did not show when he testified before Congress late last year in a bid to acquire bridge financing and avoid bankruptcy.
During and after his visit to Washington in December, Nardelli and his counterparts from Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. heard withering criticism, including the suggestion that vehicles made by Detroit auto makers are neither desirable nor reliable.
Nardelli says 400 line-item changes Chrysler executives approved for immediate implementation resulted in the lowest warranty costs in company history.
— By Eric Mayne
Ford Tries to Regain Taurus Magic
In November 2006, a team of Ford Motor Co. engineers and designers already were well on their way to developing the next-generation Taurus sedan when they were told their work was not up to snuff.
Top brass “made it very clear, it wasn't good enough,” says Scott Tobin, director-car product development.
To Ford brass, the '10 Taurus was not just any run-of-the-mill product program, but rather a key to the ailing auto maker's turnaround. The car had to set the standard in the fullsize sedan segment. Anything less would be unacceptable.
The new model is designed to be more upscale than its predecessors, which were aimed at families. Minivans and cross/utility vehicles are today's family-haulers, while fullsize sedans have become “statement” vehicles, says Moray Callum, Ford's car-design director.
— By Byron Pope
Mazda's Kills Truck
Mazda North American Operations plans to do away with its small B-Series pickup truck.
Robert Davis, senior vice president-research and development and quality, tells Ward's at the Detroit auto show that the truck will end its run when production operations cease at Ford Motor Co.'s Twin Cities St. Paul, MN, plant in 2011.
Ninety percent of Mazda's U.S. dealers don't sell the truck, which had a 238 days' supply at the end of December, Ward's data shows. However, the truck is important for some of Mazda's dealers, including those in Knoxville, TN and Austin, TX.
Davis insists the small-pickup group?could be revived, believing a vehicle of that size to be perfect for the youth market.
— By Christie Schweinsberg
BMW Unveils Retractable Hardtop
In a world premiere that briefly tries to shift the focus from the gloomy weather and even darker automotive outlook, BMW AG unveils the latest generation of its sexy Z4 roadsters.
The convertible features a highly sculpted exterior design and retractable hardtop, in place of the previous-generation's fabric top.
The new roof is comprised of two aluminum shells that fold into the trunk in 20 seconds, while allowing enough room for a medium-size suitcase or one golf bag. With the roof up, the car can accommodate two golf bags, BMW says.
In the U.S., the car will be available with two 3.0L inline 6-cyl. engines.
— By Drew Winter
Hyundai, Ford, Win Awards
Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.'s Genesis luxury sedan and Ford Motor Co.'s F-150 fullsize pickup are named North American car and truck of the year at the start of the North American International Auto Show.
Eliciting an audible gasp from the audience when its victory was announced, the Genesis narrowly edged out the Ford Flex cross/utility vehicle and Volkswagen AG Jetta TDI diesel in the final round of balloting, garnering 189 votes, compared with 180 for the Flex and 131 for the Jetta.
The Genesis also won out over a number of luxury cars from established luxury brands. Jurors credited the Hyundai for its impressive engineering and value for the money.
The new F-150 won the truck category over Chrysler LLC's Dodge Ram pickup more decisively with 259 votes, compared with 167 for the Ram and 74 for the diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz ML320 Bluetec CUV.
The F-150 outlasted other well-regarded trucks in earlier rounds, including Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Pilot CUV, BMW's X6 CUV and the Subaru Forester.
The awards are given by a jury of 50 journalists.
— By Drew Winter
Audi Sportback Concept Unveiled
Audi AG hints strongly at its long-rumored, coupe-like A7 4-door sedan to come with the unveiling of the Sportback concept.
As its name implies, the Sportback is no sedan, however. Its more wagon-like profile suggests the A7 lineup may extend beyond just a single body style, with the 4-door coupe targeted more at the sedan-centric U.S. market and the Sportback earmarked for Europe, where wagons have greater appeal.
The first glimpse of the A7 sedan in full production dress could come this fall at the Frankfurt auto show, Audi insiders suggest.
Until then, the Sportback provides the best look yet at the lineup-expanding A7.
— By David E. Zoia
Volvo S60 Concept Heritage
The Volvo S60 concept vehicle offers a glimpse of what the production version will look like when it bows in 2010, while also heralding the new design direction the Swedish auto maker is embarking on.
“We interpreted it as a step forward,” Volvo Design Director Steve Mattin tells Ward's. “We still have the typical Volvo DNA elements, but we're interpreting each of those in a more emotional, dramatic way.”
One element designers changed was the continuous shoulder flow found on earlier Volvos. The sculpted look has been replaced by what Mattin calls a “double-wave” shoulder line.
“The shoulder is still there, but we added a lot of sensuality and emotion to it,” he says. “We wanted to create more interesting body surfacing.”
— By Byron Pope
Bentley Relies on New Continental
As with other auto makers, upscale Bentley Motors Ltd. suffered last year, including a 32% drop in the U.S.
But Bentley brass are cautiously optimistic new products, such as the Continental GTC Speed, can spur ‘09 sales.
“The high-luxury sector as a whole is down about 25% worldwide, and Bentley is no exception,” says Stuart McCullough, board member-sales and marketing.
“Our total full-year sales figure for 2008 is 7,604 (units),” he says. “This puts us down around 24% from our record 2007 figures. The U.S., which was first to experience the downturn, has invariably been harder hit”
— By Derek Stark