Electric auto fleet moves a few steps closer

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - Auto engineers have been talking for years about the coming “electrification of the automobile.” But as the development of hybrids and pure-electric vehicles has accelerated rapidly across the industry, it’s increasingly difficult to separate the subject of batteries from the cars and trucks they’ll soon be powering.

A look at the machinery to be revealed at the 2009 North American International Auto Show seems to be strong evidence that the dawn of that new era has finally arrived. It is being driven in large part by tighter regulations of carbon dioxide emissions and fuel-efficiency regulations worldwide — not to mention federal bridge-loan expectations for the Detroit Three.

Still, automotive executives lament that the current combination of low average fuel prices and plummeting consumer confidence is not exactly spurring the market for the more costly hybrids and battery-electric vehicles.

Here are some of the models that are expected to be revealed at the Detroit auto show:

Honda and Toyota will be unveiling what are perhaps the most anticipated production green cars of the new year, the 2010 Insight and 2010 Prius, respectively.

The Insight re-establishes the nameplate that started the hybrid-car market in the United States in 1999. A five-door hatchback, it will feature an interactive technology called Eco Assist to help drivers optimize their cars’ fuel efficiency. Honda claims the new Insight will be the most affordable hybrid car in the world, with a base price under $20,000, when it goes on sale in April.

Toyota comes to Motown intent on asserting its ecocar leadership. It will unveil the third-generation version of its iconic Prius, with an improved nickel-metal hydride battery and electric motors that are expected to deliver greater overall performance and longer driving range. It will also introduce the first Lexus available only as a hybrid, the Lexus HS 250h.

Toyota also will show a battery-electric city car concept, the FT-EV. This subcompact shares its platform with the cute iQ commuter car that was a hit of the auto-show circuit last year. The FT-EV points to the electric urban runabout that is expected to be in showrooms by 2012.

General Motors will unveil a Cadillac concept version of the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric sedan. The luxury vehicle demonstrates how GM is configuring its E-REV powertrain, featuring a 16 kilowatt-hour lithium battery and small gasoline engine-generator, for use in a broad array of car and truck types beginning in late 2010.

Ford’s electrification strategy will be presented to the crowd of journalists here for the press preview days, including an electric commercial van based on Transit Connect for 2010. Ford will also show a Focus-based electric sedan that is a prototype for a future production model.

Showgoers will get their first up-close look at the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrid sedans. Late last month the E.P.A. certified the Fusion hybrid at 41 m.p.g. in city driving, bettering Toyota’s Camry Hybrid by eight m.p.g. Ford will showcase the cars’ all-new hybrid powertrain that enables the cars to travel up to 47 miles and hour on electric power alone. BYD, China’s largest manufacturer of cellphone batteries (the initials stand for Build Your Dreams) has been steadily developing electric automobiles under its BYD Auto group. The company, 10 percent of which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway group, which plans to enter the American market within the next two years, will be easy to find at the Detroit show, having secured display space on the main floor after Nissan pulled out of the show.

The centerpiece of BYD Auto’s display will be the F3DM, the plug-in electric compact sedan introduced to great fanfare in China last month. Two hybrids, the midsize F6DM (introduced in Detroit last year) and the F3RDM, will also be shown. Chrysler will produce its first electric model in 2010, with three additional E.V.’s following by 2013.

For the Detroit show, the new Jeep Patriot EV heads a quartet of concept hybrid and electric vehicles developed by the company’s ENVI electric-vehicle engineering group.

The Patriot features a range-extending drivetrain, similar in function to that of the Chevrolet Volt.

Upgraded and more sophisticated versions of three previously-shown Chrysler vehicles to appear at the show include a new version of the Dodge Circuit EV electric sports car; an extended-range Jeep Wrangler Unlimited EV; and the Chrysler Town & Country EV, which is capable of achieving 40 miles of all-electric range with its lithium battery pack.

Chrysler’s former partner Mercedes-Benz will show its latest battery-electric vehicle study, the BlueZero E-Cell. It’s part of a trio of environmentally-focused concepts the automaker is developing, including the hybrid BlueZero E-Cell Plus and the BlueZero F-Cell, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The automaker plans to introduce its first production E.V. in 2010.

Smart, the Mercedes-owned maker of city car, will be exhibiting a prototype electric version of its diminutive Fortwo runabout, expected to enter production later this year.

Silicon Valley’s electric-car sensation, Tesla Motors, will have its first show-floor display at Detroit this year. Having established itself as a production automaker (with more than 150 examples of its $100,000 Roadster sold to date), the fledgling maker doesn’t have anything new to unveil.

Production of Fisker Automotive’s Karma luxury-hybrid GT sports car is expected to begin later this year at the Valmet Automotive plant in Finland (which assembles Porsche’s Cayman and Boxster models on contract). The Karma made its debut in Detroit last year. Its Q-Drive powertrain is a series-type hybrid like the G.M. Volt, with a lithium-ion battery pack that can be charged with home current to provide nearly 50 miles of electric-only driving.


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