msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2006 1:11:38 PM ET 2006-01-10T18:11:38

Taking concept cars to a new level — one that combines a diesel engine, electric motor and solar panels — Ford unveiled its Reflex sportscar this week at the North American Auto Show in Detroit.

Gasoline-electric hybrids are now mainstream vehicles, but no carmaker has yet to roll out a diesel hybrid. And while Ford didn't make that commitment either, it showed a willingness to explore, touting the Reflex as an all-wheel-drive sportscar that can get 65 miles per gallon.

Diesel cars dominate in Europe, and U.S. carmakers are starting to eye the market given technology improvements that have eliminated smoke and the loud rattling sound of earlier diesels. In addition, cleaner diesel fuel will be a requirement in the United States by next year and biodiesel, made from organic matter, is finding a following.

Like gas-electric hybrids, the Reflex’s hybrid battery pack is charged by the engine and heat from braking. But it also gets charge from solar panels in the headlamps and taillamps — a technology Ford said it had patented. Solar panels in the roof power electric fans that cool the interior when the car is parked outside on a hot day.

“The vehicle's low-voltage circuitry is exposed beneath the glass roof and rear hatch,” Ford added in a statement, “giving a clever nod to accessible technology – even as a fashion statement.”

Ford stated that the hybrid battery pack uses lithium-ion batteries, the same kind found in cell phones and laptops. Carmakers now use nickel-metal hydride batteries due to cost, but many are experimenting with higher-capacity lithium.

IMAGE: REFLEX HEADLIGHT
Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
Solar panels are embedded into the front and rear lights of the Reflex.
Inside the Reflex, Ford used ground rubber from recycled athletic shoes as insulation to reduce interior noise and vibration.

As for the hybrid system, Ford said the diesel engine powers the front wheels, while an electric motor powers the rear wheels — providing “all-wheel-drive capability, improved driving dynamics and the fuel economy benefits of a full hybrid vehicle.”

The entire car is three feet shorter than Ford’s popular Mustang. “From consumer electronics to urban dwellings, small is becoming big in America,” said Peter Horbury, executive director of Ford’s North American Design group.

But will the Reflex ever make it to showrooms?

“We will wait until after the auto show to see what the customer reaction is, see how it resonates at the auto show,” said J Mays, Ford’s chief creative officer. “At that point, it will either find it’s way into a product development discussion or it’ll be put in the basement.”

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