Hang in there, well-heeled but green-minded luxury-brand shoppers. If you can’t quite picture yourself, your family and all your stuff crammed into the small, quirky-looking and (shudder) increasingly common Toyota Prius, more choices are coming.
Lots of green but respectably prestigious choices were rolled out at the 2007 New York Auto Show in early April.
The trend toward “green” cars includes a significant subset of people who are more interested in what could be called being “painlessly green.” That is, they want to save the environment and save money, but they are less interested in sacrificing comfort, performance, functionality and, let’s face it, prestige.
Lexus with its hybrids and Mercedes-Benz with clean-burning diesels are putting their best green feet forward at their New York show stands. BMW will hop on the bandwagon soon, too, and likely other high-prestige brands will follow.
There is no mistaking the ponderous, V8-powered Lexus LS 600h L Hybrid on display at the Lexus stand for a “glorified golf cart,” which is how Detroit executives used to disparage battery-powered electric vehicles. However, it could easily be mistaken for a Mercedes S-Class or something with equal gravitas, and that is precisely the point.
The LS 600h L Hybrid goes on sale in June, and advertising starts more or less immediately, said Bob Carter, Lexus Division group vice president and general manager. The 600h L Hybrid has the power of a V12 engine, with the fuel consumption of a six-cylinder engine, he said.
The “L” stands for long wheelbase, and its rear-seat room is awesome. All-wheel drive is standard. The hybrid, internal-combustion V8 and electric-motor combination produces an impressive 430 hp. Pricing is to be announced, but $100,000 would be the next logical price barrier for Lexus to break. With every option, today’s internal-combustion LS 460 L tops out around $81,000 suggested retail.
“We’ll be the only luxury manufacturer with a hybrid, and we’ll have three in the lineup,” Carter said at the auto show. That’s true, but not for long: Mercedes-Benz will introduce a hybrid version of the flagship S-Class next year, as a 2008 model.
Lexus already offers hybrid versions of its best-selling RX SUV, the RX 400h, and the GS luxury/sport sedan, the GS 450h. The RX 400h accounts for more than 20 percent of RX sales in the U.S. market, Carter said.
Clean-burning diesel (yes, diesel)
Rival Mercedes-Benz is relying on clean-burning diesels to carry the green flag.
Most Americans associate “diesel” with “smelly, noisy and under-powered.” And by the way, they can’t be sold in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire or New York because of emissions regulations. So how could they be “green?”
For starters, diesels get about one-third more miles to the gallon from the equivalent-size gasoline engine. And modern diesels don’t smell, they’re not noisy and they’re plenty powerful.
In Europe, fuel is much more expensive, and people for the most part worry more than most Americans about the environment and recycling. Yet diesel sales in Europe far outnumber gasoline engines.
An international panel of automotive journalists voted the Mercedes E320 Bluetec model “2007 World Green Car of the Year,” over several hybrid models, including the Lexus GS 450h. The award was announced at the New York show on April 5, and Mercedes-Benz wasted no time plugging the award on its auto show stand.
Bart Herring, E- and S-Class product manager for Mercedes-Benz USA in Montvale, N.J., said Mercedes-Benz will have new technology that will permit diesel sales in all 50 states next year, for the 2009 model year.
Besides the E320 Bluetec, Mercedes-Benz has diesel versions of its M-Class SUV, the ML320 CDI; the R-Class station wagon/SUV crossover, the R320 CDI; and the GL-Class SUV, the GL320 CDI.
What’s next? More of everything
Another rival, BMW, confirmed at the New York show that it, too, will offer clean diesels next year. BMW will probably match its new diesel engines with light-truck models like the X5 SUV, but it will eventually have diesel-powered passenger cars, too.
BMW displayed a hydrogen-powered version of its 7 Series flagship that emits nothing but pure water out of the tailpipe. But with no infrastructure in the United States (or anywhere else) to distribute hydrogen, it will be many years before hydrogen power is a practical alternative.
With so many hybrids, diesels and other green choices in the pipeline, it is logical to wonder what comes next for luxury brands. For instance, part of the appeal of the Toyota Prius is that its exterior styling is unique, unlike the hybrid Lexus models, which look just like the gasoline-powered versions, except for special badges.
Will Lexus stick to what could be called “stealth” hybrids, or will it borrow the Prius concept and produce a unique-looking Lexus hybrid? “We have to do both,” Carter said.
Herring at Mercedes-Benz said a feeling of “doing good” is part of the appeal for fuel-efficient cars like the Mercedes E320 Bluetec.
“I drove my car here today from New Jersey, and the [in-car information] system told me I got 31 mpg. That’s kind of a satisfying feeling,” he said. “I call it, ‘Give up nothing, and give back a lot.’”