GM Electric Car II: It's Deja Vu All Over Again
By Noel Adams
In 1907 a group of automobile manufacturers gathered at a skating rink in downtown Los Angeles and the Los Angeles International Auto Show was born. On Wednesday, November 29, 2006 the Show celebrated its 100th anniversary and I was there to see Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa officially open the proceedings.
In 1907 there were just 99 cars on display but this year, with the theme of sustainable transportation, there will be over a thousand vehicles on show.
When I arrived at the Convention Center I still had a short time before the Keynote address was due to start so I took a walk into the West Hall to take a look at the Toyota stand. Toyota has been gradually increasing the number of hybrids in its line-up and they had the Prius on display along with the Highlander Hybrid and the new Camry Hybrid. This was my first chance to get a close-up look at the Camry hybrid. Toyota’s Camry is the best selling car in the US and the Hybrid version is selling quite well. This latest implementation of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system gives the Camry an EPA rating of 40 mpg in town and 34 mpg on the highway. Not as good as the Prius but still quite respectable for a mid-sized sedan.
Next to the Toyota stand was Lexus who has also been adding to its family of hybrid vehicles. The RX 400h Hybrid SUV has been on the market for some time and the GS 450h sedan was added last year. Now Lexus has moved upscale adding the LS 600hl sedan which mates a 5.0 liter V8 to the hybrid system tuned for performance rather than economy but nevertheless produces lower emissions than any other vehicle in its segment.
It was time for the Keynote address so I made my way to one of the conference rooms to see the Mayor of Los Angeles officially open the event. He got a good laugh when he invited Rick Wagoner, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, to move the headquarters of GM to Los Angeles. This was followed by the keynote address, which this year was given by Rick Wagoner.
Rick Wagoner’s speech contained quite a bombshell. He said that GM would eventually transition from the gasoline engine to all of its vehicles being electric. He called this transition “As important as the transition from horses to horsepower”.
First he talked about the efforts of GM to increase the number of E85 capable vehicles on the road and how GM was working to increase the number of E85 pumps in the state of California. He also announced that Hummer would be the first division to go to one hundred percent E85 capable vehicles.
He then talked about GM’s hybrid strategy starting with the Saturn Vue Hybrid, which basically uses a belt system to capture energy during braking and to enable the cars motor to be shut off when the car was stopped in traffic. Then he talked about their next generation Two Phase hybrids, which work in a similar way to the Toyota and Ford systems allowing the vehicle to be driven short distances on the electric motor alone.
He also announced that GM were working on an Plug in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue Greenline but gave no time period for them going on sale, sighting the need for better batteries. He added that there would be further announcements at the Detroit Auto show.
Finally he talked about GMs fuel cell program, telling the gathering that GM would be putting one hundred Chevy Equinox fuel cell vehicles into fleet testing with fifty of them slated for Southern California.
As Rick Wagoner finished his speech two guys from the Rainforest Action Network ran on-stage and asked him to sign a pledge that GM would build fuel-efficient vehicles. Mr. Wagoner said that he would let his speech stand for itself and the two were quickly ushered off stage by security.
After the presentation I rushed off to the South Hall just in time for the start of the GM press conference. GM announced several new vehicles including the 2008 Saturn Vue and Saturn Vue Hybrid. Saturn also announced the Aura Green Line Hybrid, which uses the same stop/start technology used in the Vue Green Line. The Aura, which should be available next year, was the only new sedan that GM announced. They also had the two-phase Hybrid GMC Yukon and told the gathering of journalists that there would also be a Chevy Tahoe version of this truck. They also rolled out their latest fuel cell vehicle based on the Chevy Equinox.
After the GM announcements I hastened over to the Nissan stand to see their press conference. They announced two new performance versions of their Sentra sedan. I was more interested in getting a first look at the Nissan Altima Hybrid, which was on display next to the press conference area. Nissan have licensed the Toyota Synergy Drive system for their first hybrid and, in combination with the 2.5-liter gas engine, have produced a mid-sized sedan with a combined mileage of 42 mpg. The Altima Hybrid is certified PZEV in California.
Nissan also announced that they were featuring the Altima Hybrid in the Ride and Drive that was being conducted outside the West Hall. I decided to skip the Audi press conference and take a test drive.
The Ride and Drive featured many of the so-called “Green Cars” that are currently being developed. Once outside I went to the desk and signed a liability waiver and was told to go to the vehicles I wanted to drive and there would be a representative there to assist. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any representatives around. Finally I found someone from Ford who gave me a test drive in the Explorer Fuel Cell Vehicle.
I was quite surprised when I began to drive the Explorer. I hadn’t been in an FCV for several years and what I remember most about them is how noisy they were compared with an EV. Not the explorer however. The only sound appeared to be a bit of road noise. The SUV didn’t burn up the road as I accelerated but its acceleration was about what I would expect from the gas version. It cruised along at 35 as I circled the convention center and drove just like any other large sized SUV. The Ford representative told me that the range on this vehicle was around 300 miles. He bemoaned the lack of fueling infrastructure and told me that Ford had no current plans to put this vehicle into fleet use.
Next I was able to find a GM rep and asked to test drive the Saturn Vue Hybrid. Unfortunately he was unable to find the keys.
It was getting close to the time for the Honda press conference so I decided to abandon the ride and drive and head for the West Hall. Just outside the West Hall I found the Tesla exhibit. I was able to check out the sleek red Tesla Roadster and determined that although it is based on the Elise chassis it isn’t just a copy of the Elise. Unfortunately, all of the Tesla staff were busy with other people, so I wasn’t able to get any other details.
The Honda exhibit once again featured their line-up of hybrid vehicles, the Civic Hybrid and the Accord Hybrid. Also on display were the Civic GX CNG vehicle and the Phil home refueling system. Missing from the display this year were the now defunct Insight and their Fuel Cell vehicle.
At the press conference Honda showed three new concept vehicles. The Step Bus is a crossover vehicle a little like the Honda Element but is a mid-engine design with an interior that can be easily reconfigured for multiple uses. The REMIX is a sports car that is designed to be a fun to drive daily driver. Their final entry was their FCX fuel cell concept sedan. Honda announced that they are planning limited marketing of a fuel cell sedan in 2008. The car will be marketed in both Japan and the USA, and they told the gathering that the production car would look very similar to their concept vehicle.
After the Honda press conference I hurried over to the Ford stand just in time for the start of their press conference. First, Ford introduced the redesigned Escape and Escape hybrid, both of which will be in dealerships for the 2008 model year. The car has been updated with a three bar grill and larger headlights and looks more like the Explorer.
Then, Ford showed a concept version of the Mustang, designed by Italian designer Fabrizio Giugiaro. The car has the sleek look of an Italian sports car with a sweeping roof that is all glass. Astonishingly, they have managed to maintain the classic look and the car remains essentially a Mustang.
Lunch was up next but there was such a long line I decided to go back down to the Ride and Drive. This time I found the Nissan rep standing by the Nissan Fuel Cell Vehicle. I was able to take a drive in this SUV and this time he took me on a longer route; several miles around downtown Los Angeles. Once again I marveled at the progress that has been made in Fuel Cell Vehicles. Acceleration was smooth and handled like most other mid-sized SUVs that I have driven. Like the Ford Explorer FCV this vehicle was very quiet. Driving this SUV was similar to the experience I had driving the RAV4 EV. I asked about range and the Nissan rep told me that the current vehicle had a range of 200 miles but they were going to fit it with a bigger tank to give it a 300-mile range. Like the Ford rep he also said that they needed more fueling stations.
The Nissan rep also asked me if I had driven the Altima Hybrid. I told him I had wanted to try it but hadn’t had the opportunity. When we got back to the Convention Center he found the rep for the Altima Hybrid and I was off driving that around the same course that I had driven their FCV. The Altima Hybrid isn’t going to knock your socks off but for those that want a good economical mid-sized car this is going to be a strong competitor. I didn’t like the energy-flow display as much as I do the Prius; it was more difficult to read. Other than that minor nit-pick, the Altima was a nice car to drive with plenty of power and good handling. With its slightly better fuel economy and similar size it is going to be a strong competitor to the Camry Hybrid.
The first presentation after lunch was at the Chrysler stand. I took a look around and found that they had two GEMs on display, a four seat and a long bed utility. The GEM, although a NEV not a full sized car, is nevertheless the only electric vehicle currently sold by one of the major manufacturers and I am please to see that Chrysler continues to support these vehicles.
Chrysler announced two new vehicles, the Sebring coupe and the Sebring convertible. The Convertible has a retractable hard top, which, even when folded down still allows you to fit two golf bags into the trunk. The Sebring convertible should sell well.
Immediately after the Chrysler presentation was the BMW press conference. They first announced their redesigned X5 SUV, which has been made bigger and more powerful while giving better fuel economy. Next they rolled out their Hydrogen 7 car, which they announced would be available for sale in 2007. The Hydrogen 7 is a standard 7 series sedan, which has been modified to run on either gasoline or liquid hydrogen. This allows BMW to sell a hydrogen car without the need for extensive infrastructure.
After the BMW press conference was finished I took a quick look at the nearby Daimler Benz stand. They had a large exhibit of their Bluetec Diesel offerings including the E320. It appears that they are going to start selling these in the US for the 2008 model year and claim that they will have the engine’s emissions certified in all 50 states. For diesel fans the return of diesel to the California market will be welcomed with open arms.
I decided to take another trip to the Ride and Drive to see if they had found the keys to the Vue hybrid but they had already stopped for the day. I took another look at the Tesla and Martin Eberhard came over and said hello but before I had a chance to ask questions he was gone. I did learn through the grapevine however, that Tesla has already sold out the 250 vehicles they expect to build in 2007.
I knew that ZAP were also going to have their Xebra at the Auto Show but since they were consigned to the Specialty vendor area in Kentia Hall, which isn’t open during Press days, so I decided to head out for home.
I was parked back at the South Hall and the way led me past the Concourse where the high performance sports car manufacturers display their wares so I took a detour through there. On display were the usual gleaming Ferraris and Lamborghinis, which are enough to make even a diehard EV enthusiast drool. Also on display again this year was the Bugatti Veyron, the only production car that can out accelerate the Tesla Roadster, but only by using huge amounts of gas.
Lotus had several Elise sports cars in their exhibit so I was able to do a direct comparison with the Tesla Roadster. Spyker and Morgan also had vehicles on display showing that there is still a market for the small manufacturer.
This year's Los Angeles Auto Show has been the best one in years for environmentally friendly vehicles. Three electric vehicles are on show, it is clear that the major automobile manufacturers have finally embraced hybrids, and we have the first hints of a Plug-in Hybrid being developed. It looks like the major automobile manufacturers are starting to get the message, we need to reduce our dependence on oil, and we need to reduce the impact of transportation on the environment. I’m optimistic that next year’s auto show will be even better.
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