New Drop Tops Get Day in the Sun

As the Detroit Auto Show (officially the North American International Auto Show) winds down this week, a number of automotive trends have emerged. The biggest, of course, is that all automakers are steering toward greener, more fuel-efficient cars. Hybrids are popping up everywhere (see previous posts). Even Ferrari has announced a green version of its F430 spider (above), a projected 489-horsepower sport convertible with a V8 engine that will run on E85 biofuel.

That’s a newsworthy development, and it brings us to another, more subtle trend, but an important one nonetheless — the debut in the past week or so of a number of new convertibles. BMW, for instance, has just leaked details about its 2009 BMW M3 Convertible (the car’s world premiere will take place in Geneva in March). As its M3 designation indicates, the new convertible continues BMW’s line of motorsports-derived cars, and will feature a new 420-horsepower, 4.0-liter V8 engine that will drive the drop-top from 0 to 62 mph (100 kilometers per hour) in just 5.3 seconds.

Reportedly, the new BMW convertible will feature an updated, more muscular exterior, a stiffer body, a reinforced suspension, and a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. The M3 Convertible, which should be available at dealers later this year, will also come with a retractable three-piece hardtop.

Not to be outdone, Lexus also showed off a new convertible, the LF-A Roadster, which debuted as a concept but is expected to go into production soon. The shapely roadster will be constructed from carbon fiber and aluminum to create a rigid yet lightweight body, and will be powered by a V10 engine expected to produce about 500 horsepower. Details beyond that are still sketchy, although the new roadster will come with a retractable rear spoiler, but it seems clear that Lexus has set its sights on convertibles from Ferrari and Lamborghini with its new drop top. The price tag is sure to be in the stratosphere — somewhere north of 100K — but perhaps for its next trick, Lexus will produce a green or hybrid super-convertible. Lovers of open-air driving can only hope.

Hybrids Multiply at Detroit Auto Show

Call it a sign of the times. Automakers are tripping over each other to unveil new fuel-efficient vehicles this year. For proof, just take a look at the North American International Auto Show, currently underway in Detroit. The scene is green in Detroit this year, with a wide range of fuel-efficient vehicles being shown (avert your eyes from the 620-horsepower Corvette ZR1!). In particular, three innovative new hybrid concept vehicles have taken center stage. Keep in mind these three cars aren’t slated for production yet. But they’re an indication of what’s possible from today’s automakers, and represent a step forward in innovative thinking (though there’s still a long way to go).

Design-wise, the Saturn Flextreme (above) takes top honors, thanks to its ultra-aerodynamic, egg-shaped exterior featuring gull-wing doors, which Saturn calls FlexDoors. (Very nice, as Borat would say.) Under the hood, the Flextreme combines an electric motor with a turbo-diesel engine — hence, the hybrid designation. Drivers can plug the Flextreme into regular household current to charge its onboard battery, and run the car for 34 miles on a single charge. Then the diesel engine, running on ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, kicks in to recharge the battery and in that configuration the Flextreme can run another 400 miles or so on a single tank of fuel.

Some are calling the Toyota FT-HS Hybrid Sports Concept the next Supra, though Toyota is mum on the issue. But we can certainly say the FT-HS takes the concept of a Toyota hybrid to a whole new level and gives lovers of the Prius something to save up for.

The front-engine, rear-wheel-drive FT-HS comes equipped with a tweaked version of the 3.5-liter V6 Hybrid Synergy Drive found in the Lexus GS 450h. It operates in typical hybrid fashion, with the electric motor powering the vehicle at startup and low speeds, and the V6 powerplant taking over under strong acceleration and or when more power is required. In the FT-HS, the V6 hybrid engine produces 400 horsepower (up from 292 horsepower for the GS 450h). All that power drives a vehicle designed to be light on its feet, thanks to such materials as carbon fiber and titanium, which were used for many of the car’s components.

The third hybrid of note comes from an unlikely source — Land Rover — which just shows how ubiquitous hybrids have become (can Ferrari and Lamborghini hybrids be far behind?). Called the LRX Cross Coupe, the hybrid concept vehicle features a lightweight body like the FT-HS as well as a powerplant that combines an electric motor and a fuel efficient 2.0-liter turbodiesel engine that together eke out a very respectable 50 miles per gallon. That’s a pretty stunning mpg figure for an SUV, especially one that looks and (we would expect) performs like a Land Rover. We realize that, for the time being, these three hybrids are only concepts, but with vehicles like these on the drawing boards (and given the high cost of gasoline today), the future can’t arrive fast enough.

Toyota Debuts First Crossover Sedan With the 2009 Venza

With the introduction of the 2009 Venza, Toyota has set out to establish a whole new auto segment, which it calls the “crossover sedan,” according to Bob Carter, Toyota’s vice president and general manager, who introduced the new five-passenger vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday.

Carter notes that many of today’s car buyers are moving away from SUVs to sedans, for a number of reasons – better fuel economy, sleeker styling, and a smoother driving experience, for instance. But in doing so, buyers miss many of the benefits offered by SUVs, including better visibility, roominess, and a large cargo capacity. The Venza “crossover sedan” has been designed exclusively for the North American market to bridge that gap.

In many ways, the Venza resembles many of the crossover vehicles currently rolling off the assembly lines of automakers worldwide, including the RX, the luxury SUV crossover vehicle sold by Lexus, Toyota’s upscale partner. However, the Venza is a tad sleeker and slightly more sedan-like, with a bold grille, a fairly sedan-like front end, and a sweptback roof line and a darkened B-pillar that give the Venza a clean side profile. The back end, however, is distinctly SUV-like.

The Venza offers a roomy, uncluttered interior, according to Toyota, with the shift lever on the center console below the dashboard instead of between the front seats. This frees up the floor console to be used solely for storage. The driver and passenger also sit higher than they would in a typical sedan, providing better visibility, while the rear has a lower cargo floor and split rear seats. In addition, the Venza comes with seven airbags, and is the first Toyota car to come equipped with the Star Safety System, a stability control system found in Toyota’s SUVs and in the Tundra pickup truck.

A 268-horsepower V6 engine will power the Verza when it arrives in showrooms later this year. The V6 will link to a six-speed automatic transmission with sequential shift. A few months after the V6 version appears, Toyota will roll out a more fuel-efficient trim with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine.

In another day and age, the Venza might have been called a beefy station wagon, but such terminology has gone the way of cassette tapes and 99-cent gasoline. Whether the Venza really does establish a new automotive segment remains to be seen, but it’s obvious that today’s automakers are continuing to design vehicles that appeal to a wide range of finicky buyers.

Sneak Peeks and Rollouts for a New Year

New year, new cars. What could be better for an auto aficianado? When the North American International Auto Show, more commonly known as the Detroit Auto Show, officially kicks off next Saturday (Jan. 19), we’ll be inundated with more new cars and concepts that we can absorb. But why wait? Some automakers are getting a jump on the Detroit show by previewing their cars early, and some are even jumping the gun by showing their cars at other shows.

That’s what GM has done by debuting its Cadillac Provoq (provoke?) hydrogen-powered concept car at the Consumer Electronics Show, currently underway in Las Vegas. Typically, CES flys its geek flag by showing off the latest games and gadgets, but obviously GM saw an opportunity to make a different kind of splash and went for it. In fact, the Provoq is the first car ever to receive its unveiling at CES.

So what’s all the fuss about? Like most concept cars, the Provoq (pictured above) sports a futuristic exterior, with a streamlined roofline, a contemporary Cadillac grille, and a sculpted rear end. But of course it’s what’s inside that counts here. The Provoq features GM’s fifth-generation hydrogen fuel-cell system, which includes two 10,000-psi tanks, which feed the fuel cells under the hood that produce electricity, which is then stored in lithium-ion batteries. The Provoq can run for 20 miles on a single battery charge and an additional 280 miles with the energy provided by the fuel cells. That’s a big leap over the capabilities of GM’s current hydrogen-powered fleet.

But the Provoq is just the beginning of a wide range of vehicles set for introduction next week. Hyundai has already given us a sneak peek of its new $60,000, rear-wheel-drive 2009 Genesis luxury sedan (above), which the South Korean automaker plans to pitch alongside similar cars from Lexus, Infiniti, BMW, and Mercedes. It will come equipped with a 368-horsepower V8 engine, navigation system with eight-inch display, Bluetooth wireless communications system, high-def radio, woodgrain interior accents, heated and cooled seats, smart cruise control, and push-button start, among other features. The automaker calls it the most advanced Hyundai ever. No word yet on when it will be available. You can check out more details here.

Although it’s not quite as high-end, Subaru has given us a sneak peek of its 2009 Forester on its totally cool Japanese web site (although it helps if you read Japanese to fully appreciate the site). The Forester, which went on sale in Japan in December and will make its U.S debut in Detroit, will ride on a new platform that’s about three inches longer, with a new exterior and interior (though the jury’s still out on the new design, especially the front end – we’ll have to get back to you on that). Two new engines will supposedly be available, including a turbocharged 2.5-liter powerplant. The Forester will also feature a sturdier body structure, an upgraded suspension, side curtain airbags, and a traction control system.

Other automakers have teased new vehicles, including Toyota, which has unveiled its new 2009 Corolla. But the real big news is the 2009 Chevy Corvette ZR1, details of which were leaked by GM a few days after Christmas. The ’09 ‘Vette will come equipped with a new 6.2-liter supercharged LS9 V8 engine that produces a whopping 620 horsepower and pushes the speedster to a top speed of around 200 miles per hour. (As Letterman used to say, hold on to your wigs and keys.) The ‘Vette will also feature a new exterior design, a new transmission, a heads-up display, a revamped braking system, and a whole lot more. Rollout is expected this summer. The line forms to the left.