Plug In Your Prius! Vroom Up Your Volt! The Race Is On!

Toyota Plug-In HV (AP photo)

One bit of good news on the automotive front this week came from Toyota, who finally unveiled their plug-in version of the Prius hybrid. The plug-in car, called the Toyota Plug-In HV, is going to get real-life roadtesting over the next three years, starting in Japan, with some limited testing in Europe and the US. Thanks to the Toyota Prius’s high profile (and big market share), this is attracting still more attention to the plug-in hybrid market sector.

On-road beta-testing is a big step for a new technology like this, and it’s a smart move by Toyota in terms of grabbing headlines. Of course, Ford announced a road-testing partnership for its plug-in hybrids earlier this month; still, the prospect of Southern California Edison using some plug-in vehicles (plans are for a fleet of 20 by the end of 2009) hasn’t captured people’s imaginations as much as the Toyota project.

And where’s our friend the Chevrolet Volt in all of this? Some industry watchers suggest that GM’s plug-in technology is the most potentially robust; are Bob Lutz and his colleagues wussing out on a challenge, or playing a waiting game?

The bottom line is that none of these vehicles are ready for prime time yet. The issue is the battery: nickel-hydride batteries just don’t have the power needed to run a car (much less an SUV) very far for very long. Lithium-ion batteries seem, right now, to be the answer (though some carmakers appear to be focusing instead on hydrogen fuel cells). The question is, how long will it be until someone develops an Li battery that’s safe, powerful, efficient, and affordable enough to make sense for people to want to buy it?

We spend a lot of time ooh-ing and ahh-ing at plug-in car design, but the cornerstone to making this work is lightweight, durable, and safe battery technology. Without it, the plug-in race is going to be stalled at the starting line.

The good folks at Tesla Motors seem to have worked this out–their Tesla Roadster goes 200 miles on a charge and tops out at 135 miles per hour, thanks to its nearly 7,000 lithium-ion power cells. Of course, all that oomph comes at a price; at over $90,000 and with a year-long waiting list, the Tesla Roadster isn’t likely to be the 21st century’s Model T!

What is to be Done? Or, A Guide for the Perplexed

Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

Sometimes I like to put the student loans to work (by borrowing titles from classic literature, for instance). But, as the coffee ads used to say, “it’s to prove a point.” This spring and summer have seen lots of green-car headlines, which makes me happy; however, if you look at the big picture, you see a lot of different directions.

For instance, I’ve been meaning to write about the Mercedes E320 Bluetec being selected as the 2007 World Green Car of the Year since the award was announced in April. The Bluetec is a fuel-efficient clean diesel; it gets 36 miles per gallon, and thanks to high-tech catalytic converters, its emissions are significantly lower than a gasoline engine’s. And it’s available in the US! (But good luck finding a gas station with diesel in most major cities.) Another finalist for the year’s Green Car honors was the Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion, a 60-mile-per-gallon clean-diesel family hatchback. Yes, you read that right. Sadly, the Polo BlueMotion isn’t scheduled to come to the US anytime soon.

Although clean diesel is all the rage in Europe, here in the US it seems that most of the emphasis when it comes to green driving is on hybrids. We’ve talked about New York City’s hybrid taxi initiative, led by the Ford Escape Hybrid; the Escape’s twin, the Mercury Mariner hybrid is generating buzz as well. GM’s jumped into the hybrid market with the Saturn Aura Green Line and its twin, the funky Chevy Malibu hybrid, which launched at baseball’s All-Star Game this week:

And Chrysler is getting into the act, too, with a 2008 launch of hybrid Aspen and Durango models. Meanwhile, Toyota continues to rule the US hybrid market with its Prius, as stateside sales of the distinctive gas-electric snubnose top 400,000.

But wait…what about the plug-in car? The Chevrolet Volt concept car is exciting us here at CarGurus and in the media at large. Ford’s plug-in HySeries drivetrain grabbed fewer headlines, but may beat Chevrolet’s E-Flex plug-in to the market; a test fleet of plug-in Escapes is being tried out by a California utility company. Right now, the plug-in field is dominated by Ford and GM, which may make a difference when it comes to US government incentives going forward.

And let’s not forget some of the other technologies out there, from biodiesel and flex-fuel to hydrogen-powered cars. It’s enough to make your head spin…wait! Maybe I could power a flywheel with that!

Seriously, though, the automotive industry is in a time of incredible transition. I don’t think anyone knows what fuel(s) are going to be powering us down the highway in 20 years. Is the fuel of the future hydrogen? Biomass? Clean diesel (whether biodiesel or petroleum)? Battery power, either hybrid or plug-in? Some combination of the above?

Only time will tell. And speaking of “time”, this reminds me of a similar moment in automotive history: the very beginning.

Yep, when cars first started being manufactured commercially, there was a similar wealth of choices when it came to powertrains. Who remembers the Stanley Steamer, a gorgeous automobile whose engine was an adaptation of the plants that drove trains down tracks, and powered ships along the rivers and across the seas?

And while we’re looking backward, let’s not forget the early electric cars, either. These beautiful machines were thought by many to have more staying power than the “coarse” and “unreliable” gasoline-powered competition. A hundred years later, electric cars are the New New Thing. Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

Small Cars Making a Splash

It took awhile, but the 2008 smart fourtwo, a sporty two-door minicar built by Mercedes, is finally ready for its closeup. Although the actual cars won’t be available in the U.S. until the first quarter 2008, you can now reserve your very own smart fourtwo for just $99. The reservation program, available through the automaker’s website at, is open solely to autobuyers and enthusiasts; dealers and brokers cannot take part in the program. By the way, three models will be available, including the “pure” entry-level coupe, the well-equipped “passion” coupe, and the “passion” cabio (convertible), which is the most expensive of the trio.

The 8.8-foot-long smart fourtwo is currently sold in 36 countries. That’s right, the U.S. will be the 37th country in which the car will be sold. Obviously it took a long time for the smart fourtwo to reach these shores — but it’s not the only small car out there. Of course, BMW’s Mini is on sale here, but a quick look around the globe shows that there’s a lot more out there for lovers of these small, sporty, efficient vehicles. For instance:

>> Ford recently announced that just as it has reintroduced the Taurus, it is bringing back the Fiesta, or rather bringing the European version of the Fiesta to the U.S. Details are still sketchy, as is the final design, but word is that a two-door coupe version of the Fiesta will arrive in the U.S. in late 2008 or early 2009. The subcompact is expected to share a platform with the Mazda2 and feature aggressive styling. More info as it develops.

>> Although its currently not slated for sale in the U.S., the Suzuki Splash is certainly, well, making a splash. Scheduled to make its debut at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September, the Splash (above) is a Japanese car that will be built in Hungary and sold in Europe. The four-door minicar will be targeted at families and offer a choice of three engines, including an 86-horsepower four-cylinder gas engine as well as a diesel. It’s expected to go on sale next spring. Only time will tell if it reaches the U.S.

>> Finally, Italian automaker Fiat, which has a long history of building and selling small cars, recently unveiled its new Fiat 500 Cinquecento minicar at the Turin Auto Show. The short, snub-nosed vehicle, which will be sold in Europe as well as Turkey, Taiwan, and a number of other countries, will be a two-seat vehicle available in coupe and convertible versions, with four different trim levels and a choice of three engines. Although its cars are very popular in other parts of the world, Fiat hasn’t sold its cars in the U.S. since the 1980s, so there’s little to no chance of the 500 showing up here. But perhaps it will inspire American automakers to think small.

Nissan’s Electrics: On or Off?

Tesla Roadster LA Times Photograph

I’m an unabashed electric-car fangirl. Well, maybe I’m slightly abashed, but I really believe that all-electric vehicles, along with hybrids, are an important piece of transportation and environmental strategies for the future. (And electric cars are just so cool!)

And that’s why I was so excited to read the reports of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s recent press conference in Bangkok. Mr. Ghosn, a native of Brazil, has been credited with pushing Nissan (and its subsidiary Renault) toward a greener focus in the past year or so; some observers suggest that his internationalist perspective has helped shake up entrenched thinking at Nissan, which lags well behind Toyota and Honda in embracing green initiatives.

Ghosn sounded like all systems were go at the Bangkok presser, with statements like this: “We continue on the lithium ion battery. We think for us it’s a competitive advantage [….] We have a lot of technology in this area, and we think this is going to be very helpful, not only for hybrids but also for electric cars.”

When questioned further, Ghosn declared, “If you have an efficient battery for a hybrid, why not go all the way and go for electric cars? It has zero emissions of anything.” (These quotes come courtesy of the Associated Press; the CarGurus budget doesn’t run to overseas junketing quite yet.) Ghosn also announced a collaborative project with the Japanese government, slated to place “hundreds” of all-electric cars in municipalities around the country.

This is exciting news for us electric-car junkies. With Toyota and Honda (and, in the US, Ford) so focused on the hybrid segment, the all-electric development territory is dominated by GM and a handful of small companies. Nissan entering the field would mean a dramatic increase in competition, which might well lead to faster development and production. With two major players, as well as some very innovative independents, in the field, the electric-car dream would be that much closer to reality.

And, alas, as I was putting this post together, today’s WhatCar? headlines a statement from Chris Lee, Nissan’s general manager of product planning and strategy, saying unequivocally that Nissan isn’t planning electric–or even hybrid–models any time soon. “Electric or hybrid cars are not returning the investment costs yet, so it is not a route to pursue for us,” is how Lee’s quoted.

Now, I don’t know what’s going on here, but it sounds as if Ghosn got a bit ahead of himself in Bangkok. I hope, though, that whoever’s really in charge of this stuff at Nissan will reconsider. Only time will tell, I guess. It was a nice dream to have for a few days.

And just to give us all something to dream on, here’s the Tesla Roadster burning up the test track.

If you’ve got $90,000 (and the juice to leapfrog a bunch of movie stars and other VIPs on the waiting list), you won’t have to wait for the automotive dinosaurs to go electric–the Tesla Roadster’s first production models are shipping this summer! Sometimes it’s not easy, or cheap, being green.

Ford’s Top 10 New Features for 2008

You have to give Ford credit for its aggressiveness in designing and marketing its 2008 lineup of cars, SUVs and crossover vehicles, which are just starting to hit showrooms. And if truth be told, a number of the automaker’s vehicles have all the markings of surefire hits. The Ford Escape Hybrid (above) is one such up-and-comer, as are the Ford Edge crossover vehicle (introduced in 2007) and the Taurus X crossover (a rebadged Freestyle that shows promise, though the exterior design needs some tweaking). I also like the Focus, which is a great little entry-level vehicle, and I think the new Ford Taurus (a rebadged Five Hundred) has the possibility of being a breakthrough hit for the automaker.

The 2008 Taurus is an interesting vehicle, in part because of the attention paid to it by Ford’s interior design team. According to press reports, it appears that Ford is determined not to screw up this vehicle. Instead, the automaker is paying close attention to the details, or what is often referred to as the vehicle’s “fit and finish.” Such components as the shift knob, the instrument gauges, the feel of the audio control knobs, and even the sound the door makes when it closes have come under intense scrutiny by designers, who are seeking to create an image of quality.

That’s admirable, and it’s a theme that’s beginning to resonate through the car company. For proof, just take a look at the “Top 10 New Product Features” for 2008 Fords, Lincolns, and Mercurys. A partial list includes the following:

> Ford Sync, a “voice-activated, hands-free, in-car communications and entertainment system.” incorporates Bluetooth technology and USB connectivity to enable drivers to easily integrate their mobile phones and media players with the car’s systems. For instance, you can control your iPod simply by speaking to it. Cool. Developed with Microsoft, the Sync system will be available on 12 Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles later this year, and on all of Ford’s vehicles in two years.

> Voice-activated navigation, which enables hands-free operation, will enable drivers to control the navigation system with more than 100 vocal commands. It will be available on 13 Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles for 2008.

> A capless fuel filler will be standard on 2008 Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer models. No need to ever worry again about losing the gas cap. Instead, the capless fuel system opens automatically when a fuel nozzle is inserted, and seals shut automatically when the nozzle is removed.

> Eco-friendly recycled seating surfaces, made from 100-percent post-industrial waste, are installed in the 2008 Ford Escape and Ford Escape Hybrid. This is an industry-first, Ford notes, and should save 600,000 gallons of water, 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, and 7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Other Top 10 new product features include a rear-view camera system, an LED ambient interior lighting system, one touch power-assisted flip-and-fold seats in the Taurus X, and a Tailgate Step in the 2008 Ford F-Series Super Duty trucks. All in all, that’s a pretty impressive list. All that remains is to see if drivers respond to these innovations with their pocketbooks.