VW Space UP! Blue Fuel Cell Plug-in Hybrid

2007 Los Angeles Auto Show

EV World correspondent Noel Adams hikes the 2007 LA Auto Show in search of 'green'

By Noel Adams

This year the first day of the LA auto show started half an hour early so the sun was low in a cloudless sky as I drove along the 10 freeway towards the Convention Center.

After grabbing a quick breakfast I skipped over to catch the keynote address which this year was given by Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor Company. The presentation started with a short film of the Ford 999 fuel cell car accelerating up to 200 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The car looked like it still had plenty of go in it as it hit the 200 mph mark but they didn’t push it beyond that.

Mr. Mulally, who came to Ford from Boeing, focused the first part of his talk on the efforts to move the company back to profitability. The company has been trimming down, working to get production to match sales so that they could cut costs. He told us that Ford is on track to return to profitability by 2009.

Then he spent a short time talking about Ford’s blueprint for Sustainability. It was a statement about how Ford was becoming more environmentally aware, something that would keep echoing around the halls of the convention center as each manufacturer showed their latest line-up of cars.

Mr. Mulally said “Ford is committed to offering customers affordable environmentally friendly technologies in vehicles they really want”. He talked about leveraging the investment in Petrol and Diesel in the short term, increasing fuel efficiency by reducing weight and improving aerodynamics. Over the long term Ford is investing in plug-in hybrids and fuel cells.

He also talked about moving away from a focus on trucks and SUVs, and start offering a complete range of vehicles. He said that selling a hundred or even a thousand vehicles would have little impact, but if they can improve fuel efficiency on a million vehicles that is how Ford could make a difference.

Finally he mentioned that Ford is going to be delivering plug-in hybrids to Southern California Edison for testing by the end of this year.

After the keynote speech, I moved down to the West hall where Lincoln unveiled the MKS. The MKS has been engineered for lower weight and is expected to deliver 17mpg in town and 24mpg on the highway.

Next I moved over to the Honda stand. This year, “green” vehicles seemed thin on the ground. Gone was the gas sipping Honda Insight and the gas guzzling Honda Accord Hybrid. The civic Hybrid and the Civic GX natural gas vehicle were still there though, and are still two of the three most eco-friendly vehicles being sold by a major manufacturer.

The Honda presentation was kicked of by Tetsuo Iwamura, the President and CEO of American Honda, who talked about how Honda engineers had pledged “blue skies for our children’ before introducing the Honda Clarity, a four door sedan powered by a fuel cell. He also announced that the Clarity would be available to the public in mid 2008.

Mr. Fukui then handed the presentation over to Dan Bonawitz the Vice President in charge of Corporate Planning and Logistics at American Honda who gave out details of the program.

The Clarity has a range of approximately 270 miles and has a much smaller fuel cell stack than the earlier FCX. It also uses a Li Ion battery pack. The combination of fuel cell and batteries give the car the equivalent of 68mpg. The car has also been tested to start at temperatures as low as -22F, which is about the same as you expect from a gas car.

The Clarity will be leased through selected Honda Dealers at a cost of $600 per month which includes maintenance and insurance. To qualify for a car you will need to live near one of the three public hydrogen filling stations in the Los Angeles area, Santa Monica, Irvine or LA. They wouldn’t give out any numbers on how many of these cars would be available but I suspect that leasing one of these will be about as easy as leasing a Honda EV+; really difficult.

Kudos to Honda however, they already leased three of their first generation FCX fuel cell vehicles to the general public and leasing more fuel cell vehicles can only help develop these cars and kick start the infrastructure.

The next presentation was in the South Hall and as I exited the West hall I took a chance to look at a Prius displayed by ecotrendsetters.com which had been fitted out with skirts over the rear wheels and some other stuff to make it more aerodynamic. I never did find out how that effected fuel consumption though.

Also outside the West Hall was a nice display from Smart. They had four vehicles on display including a bright red convertible. ZAP in Santa Rosa have been importing the Smart Fortwo from Europe, modifying them to meet US crash test requirements, and selling them at $26,000 a pop. Mercedes Benz has finally woken up to the sales potential of this car in the US and should have it on sale early next year at a cost of between $12,000 and $18,000 depending on options.

The next presentation was coming up quickly so I rushed over to the South Hall to see what GM had to offer. On the way there I walked past the stand displaying the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. It still looks too big to be allowed but at least the hybrid system will improve fuel economy for those that feel they can’t live without a giant SUV.

The GM presenter was Bob Lutz who tried to give GM an environmental spin saying that they intend to give the customer “The best fuel economy for the vehicles our customers choose”. He added that they intend to make Chevrolet “the fuel economy leader world wide”.

He then showed 9 new cars, the Aveo 5, build by Daewoo in Korea but sold under the Chevrolet brand name, the Chevrolet Silverado dual mode hybrid, the Flex fuel Impala, the Malibu mild hybrid, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid concept, the Equinox fuel cell vehicle, and two concept cars first shown at the New York auto show, the subcompacts Beat and the Groove, both designed in Korea.

GM appears to be trying to provide all types of alternative fuel vehicles. It almost seems like they are hedging their bets so if one type of fuel takes the lead they will be ready to go. This isn’t such a bad strategy in these uncertain times.

Still, it’s nice to see GM rolling out their dual mode hybrids after years of telling us that hybrids didn’t make sense. It is interesting that GM is putting its hybrid drive trains in its bigger vehicles in an attempt to keep the large truck and SUV market alive even though the evidence suggests that hybrid buyers are looking for high fuel economy not big trucks.

He went on to tell us that they had decided to produce the Beat and are seriously considering producing the Groove. GM has needed some good small cars to flesh out their product line.

Next it was over to the VW stand where they, like most of the other manufacturers, talked about the need to reduce carbon footprint. VW have a strategy of using Diesel as a way to make cars more fuel efficient but diesel has long been deemed too dirty to pass strict US and even stricter California emission standards. This year VW announced the return of the Jetta TDI to the US, and told us that it would be sold in all 50 states, meaning they have made it clean enough to pass California emission tests.

They then introduced a new concept vehicle, the Space-up Blue which is a plug-in hybrid car that has a 60 miles battery only range and goes up to 200 miles on hydrogen with the on-board fuel cell. They also said that they would produce this vehicle, with a diesel engine replacing the fuel cell, by 2010.

Each year the Media days at the LA auto show seem to be getting more and more crowded and this year was no exception. The next presentation, Audi, was so crowded by the time I got there that I couldn’t even get close. Now, I’m not a big fan of Audi so I decided to skip the presentation and go in search of Coffee. Outside the south hall I could see the mountains west of LA, and could clearly see the brown ring that tells me every day why we need cleaner vehicles.

After grabbing a quick cup of coffee I hustled back to the South Hall to Nissan stand where I managed to get a seat with a decent view. The presentation kicked off with some film of what looked like a small two seat subcompact similar to the Smart. I was just starting to get excited about the prospect of another micro-car on the market when they rolled out the actual car, the new Murano crossover vehicle.

It turned out that the film was distorting the image of the car making it look much shorter than it actually was.

Next they rolled out there new GT-R high performance sports car. This is a 480 hp rocket that is going to be a strong competitor to Porsche. There were no fuel economy figures given for this vehicle, but I don’t see it being very economical.

Once again Nissan managed to disappoint with no mention of the electric technology they had been displaying at the Tokyo motor Show. I did see an Altima Hybrid on display and the Versa which is one of the best selling subcompacts.

Then it was hurry up again as I rushed over to the South Hall for the Toyota unveiling. I took a short cut across the service area behind the Concourse Hall and made it to the Toyota stand ahead of the crowed and snagged the last available seat in the front row.

Bob Carter, General Manager of Toyota, started by rolling out the Alcan fuel cell highlander. This SUV had just been driven from Fairbanks Alaska to Vancouver, British Columbia, a total of 2300 miles. More interesting still is that the car was driven for 316 miles from Fairbanks to the Canadian border on a single tank of hydrogen because the US wouldn’t let them fuel the car from a mobile fueling station so they had to drive all the way to Canada where such refueling is legal.

It turns out that this particular Highlander FCV is fitted with a hydrogen tank with carries 6Kg of hydrogen at 10,000 psi.

Next they mentioned that two factory built plug-in Priuses had just been delivered for testing. One has been delivered to UC Irvine and the other to UC Berkley. It would have been nice if they had brought one to display in LA.

Then they rolled out the next generation Toyota Sequoia. This full sized SUV looked a little smaller than its predecessor and they claimed that the 381 hp engine coupled to a 6 speed automatic transmission was 12% more fuel efficient than the previous generation Sequoia. The SUV is also ULEV 2 compliant and an E85 Flex Fuel version will be available in 2008.

They went on to tell us how purchasers of the Sequoia needed a big SUV to tow boats and carry their gear when they head out to the wild. Personally I have never seen anyone tow anything with a Sequoia, it usually some tiny little lady driving to the coffee shop while she yaks on a cell phone. Still, I guess they like to preserve the image so people believe they can’t haul a cup of joe from starbucks without a gigantic SUV.

Given that Toyota is the world leader in hybrids, and we were surrounded with Prius, Camry hybrids, and highlander hybrids I was really disappointed with what they had to offer. Where was the hybrid mini-van? Where was the hybrid subcompact? Where are the plug-in hybrids? I guess we will have to wait for the Detroit auto show.

There was a quick break in the action and as I left the Toyota stand I took a look at the 2009 Matrix that they had on display. The 2009 has been redesigned with a rounder more aerodynamic body and it looks really good. It’s difficult to tell if fuel economy has improved since the new EPA figures are lower than the old figures but I expect that Toyota has improved mileage a bit on this vehicle.

I took a walk through the Concourse Hall where they keep all of the really expensive cars. Most of the low volume manufacturers weren’t presenting until the following day but there were still a good number of vehicles to drool over. Just outside the hall was the usual display from Morgan, who are expanding in the US. The cars haven’t changed much in the last 50 years so I don’t expect to see a plug-in hybrid from them any time soon.

The usual players were all there, Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Lamborghini Spiker and Lotus all had cars on show. Tesla were conspicuous by their absence but since they have already sold out their 2008 production they don’t really need to be burning money on the auto show circuit.

After a quick lunch I hurried down to the Porsche display to get a look at the Lohner Porsche that was being displayed for the first time in the USA. This car was designed by a young engineer called Ferdinand Porsche in 1899 and caused a sensation at the Paris exposition of 1900. The car has been portrayed in the press as the first hybrid, but is actually an electric car, not the hybrid that Porsche built in 1901, which, as far as I know, didn’t survive to the present day.

What is interesting about the Lohner Porsche is that it was the first vehicle to use hub motors. Hub motors are now very common on electric scooters and are starting to show up on concept cars like the Nissan Pivo.

Porsche started their presentation with some interesting statistics. 35% of the cars that they build are sold in the USA, 10% are sold in California, and 4% or 1 of every 25 cars that they build, are sold in Los Angeles. That’s why the LA Auto show is so important for Porsche.

They then went on to announce that they would be building the Cayenne hybrid for sale around the middle of next year in the US. The Cayenne is a two mode hybrid, meaning that it will run for short distances on electricity alone. One thing that distinguishes the Cayenne hybrid is its ability to run on electricity at freeway speed up to 70 mph. Porsche said that they could get as much as two miles of EV only range on a flat freeway.

They also announced that there would be a hybrid option for the Porsche Panamera four-door sedan which should be available some time in 2009.

Next they announced the Porsche 911 GT2, a high performance sports car. They were very proud of the fact that even though the car has a top speed of over 200mph, it is certified LEV II and, though they didn’t give fuel consumption numbers, they stated that the car is frugal enough to avoid gas guzzler taxes. In Fact, they said that none of the cars Porsche sells in the US are subject to the gas guzzler tax.

Leaving the Porsche stand I hurried back to the South Hall to see the Chrysler announcements. Chrysler started out by showing the Dodge Journey, yet another entry into the crowded crossover vehicle market. Chrysler have maintained the aggressive look that has come to identify the Dodge mark in a car that is better suited to soccer moms than the urban warriors that its reptilian looks target.

This SUV comes standard with seating for five and offers an optional third row of seats. The interior, as we have come to expect from Chrysler, is well designed with rear seats that fold up for easy access to the third row of seats, of fold flat to give plenty of room to haul stuff from Home Depot.

Next they pulled out two full sized hybrid SUVs, the Dodge Durango and the Chrysler Aspen. These are both powered by Chrysler’s Hemi engine and the two mode hybrid system, combined with displacement on demand, should give a 25% fuel improvement over the non-hybrid versions.

Finally, they mentioned GEM, who this year will celebrate their tenth anniversary. GEM is the leading seller of road legal electric vehicles in the US having sold over 35,000 NEVs. After the presentation I took a look around and GEM had both a 2 seat and a 4 seat on display, both equipped with hard doors, and both in a very nice looking metallic blue paint.

While I was over at the Chrysler stand I took the opportunity to check out their latest Town and Country Minivan configuration. The Town and Country on display had second row seats that could be swiveled 180O to face towards the rear of the car. So that passengers in the second and third rows could sit around a table. The minivan offers 17mpg City and 24 mpg highway, is E85 capable, and one of the safest vehicles on the road. Now, all that Chrysler need to do is to add their dual mode hybrid system, or better yet produce the first plug-in hybrid minivan.

The final presentation I attended was the one given by Korean car maker Hyundai. Hyundai had a reputation for very poor quality when they first came into the USA but have improved so much that they are now snapping at the heals of the Japanese. With all the hybrids announced at this year’s show I was expecting some interesting things from Hyundai.

In the end it was like a blast from the past as they unveiled their latest concept, a muscle car that looked like the sort of thing that Pontiac, Ford and Chrysler announced a few years ago before fuel prices went through the roof. They have a solid market for the Tiburon and have a loyal following. They are looking for the next generation of muscle car to follow on from the Tiburon but as fuel prices soar and the public is looking for more fuel efficient vehicles, a muscle car seems like an odd thing to show.

Driving home from the Convention Center in typical Los Angeles bumper to bumper traffic I reflected on what I had seen and heard over the last eight hours. It does look like the US auto makers are finally starting to get the idea that they need to move away from gasoline, but they still look like they are trying to use the hybrid power train to stretch a few more years out of their full sized SUVs.

I was happy to hear that both Ford and GM are looking to produce smaller cars and both are looking at plug-in hybrids. It still remains to be seen if the Plug-in hybrids are for show or if they really intend to start selling them. I was happy to see that both Toyota and Ford are starting evaluation programs for plug-in hybrids but I would really like to see them push ahead with a car that the public can actually buy.

Last year Honda announced that they plan to make their fuel cell vehicle available to the public and I was glad to hear that they will be making them available next year, and given the lack of fueling infrastructure and the cost of these vehicles, I can understand this being a very limited offer. Still, the lease only program reminds me of the EV1 so I expect Chris Payne is already mapping out the script to “Who Killed the Fuel Cell Vehicle”. Even if I could afford the $600 lease payment I’m not sure I would want to lease a car that I knew would be taken away from me in three years.

The 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show turned out to be the year of the Hybrids. Let’s just see how well these full sized hybrid SUVs sell when all the evidence shows that hybrid buyers are looking for high fuel economy. And when are we going to see a hybrid minivan for the US market; perhaps next year?

Times Article Viewed: 20366
Published: 20-Nov-2007


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