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Forget chrome, automakers prefer green look

Hybrids, advanced diesels and green alternatives are pushing aside the traditional displays of speed and chrome at this week's Detroit auto show, a nod to a new reality for car makers.
Detroit Auto Show
Daimler AG executive Dieter Zetsche, shows off the Smart Fortwo microcar at the show.Paul Sancya / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hybrids, advanced diesels and green alternatives are pushing aside the traditional displays of speed and chrome at this week's Detroit auto show, a nod to a new fuel-efficient reality for car makers.

Automakers, only weeks after Congress approved tougher fuel-efficiency requirements, are broadening their array of cars that get more on a gallon of gasoline, cutting carbon dioxide emissions and using alternative power sources.

Most of the vehicles and technologies have been in the pipeline for years, but the podiums at the North American International Auto Show should further signal a shifting direction for the industry after years of pushing more horsepower and speed.

"The industry all together has to show further and faster improvements on the fuel-efficiency side," said Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Daimler AG, which has pushed a diesel strategy to improve its fuel efficiency.

The auto industry has made vehicles more efficient in recent years, but much of the gains have been offset by increases in horsepower and vehicle weight.

In 1987, for example, the average vehicle could accelerate to 60 miles per hour in 13.1 seconds, weighed 3,221 pounds and had a 118 horsepower engine, offering about the same power as a 2008 Nissan Versa subcompact, which offers 122 horsepower.

By 2007, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average vehicle weighed 4,144 pounds, boasted a 223 horsepower engine and did zero to 60 in 9.6 seconds.

President Bush signed an energy bill in late December that requires the industry's fleet of new cars, sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase and the first major changes since the 1970s.

With gas prices surging past $3 a gallon and calls for lawmakers to address global warming, the new law will challenge the industry and heavily influence future vehicles.

General Motors Corp., which created a green buzz last year with the Chevrolet Volt, is showing a similar plug-in hybrid concept on a Saturn Opel. GM also will extend its hybrid lineup, releasing a new Saturn Vue two-mode hybrid, which is expected to boost fuel economy by about 50 percent when it hits showrooms later this year.

Toyota Motor Corp., which has dominated the gas-electric hybrid market with its Prius and Camry hybrids, will raise the curtain Monday on the A-BAT, a hybrid pickup truck built on a car platform.

Even niche, luxury carmakers are getting in the advanced hybrid act. Fisker Automotive, an Irvine, Calif., startup, will show a plug-in hybrid sports sedan that is estimated to start at about $80,000.

Sandy Stojkovski, a fuel economy expert and director of vehicle engineering at Ricardo Inc., estimated that more than half of the vehicles by 2020 will need some kind of hybrid configuration to meet the new standards.

"There has to be some additional technologies brought in and in greater volume such as the hybrids and mass quantities of the improved engines," Stojkovski said.

Still, auto industry officials note that many consumers are turned off by the higher costs of a hybrid vehicle, typically $4,000 to $5,000 more, and more modest alternatives are needed.

Ford Motor Co. is taking a practical approach through its new EcoBoost engine, a more fuel-efficient powertrain that it plans to use in about 500,000 vehicles in North America during the next five years. The engine is much more cost-effective than a hybrid, using direct-injection and turbocharging technologies.

"We needed a solution that would affect millions of cars _ not thousands or hundreds but millions. And a lot of the advanced technology stuff, which eventually will play in the future, is a ways away," said Sue Cischke, Ford's senior vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering.

Others are pointing to diesels, which can provide about a 25 percent boost in fuel efficiency.

Daimler showed its GLK compact sport utility vehicle, offering a diesel option that can get up to 35 mpg. BMW AG, meanwhile, showed advanced diesel versions of the X5 sport utility vehicle and a 3-Series passenger car.

Car makers have been testing advanced vehicles for several years, including hydrogen fuel cells and plug-in hybrids, with the hopes that the technologies will improve and become more viable.

Chrysler LLC, which has ranked near the bottom in fuel efficiency ratings, on Monday is showing the prototypes from a new green strategy: a Jeep with a lithium-ion battery pack and diesel hybrid engine, a Dodge ZEO electric concept sports wagon, and a Chrysler fuel-cell vehicle.

While analysts caution that futuristic vehicles frequently receive attention and acclaim at auto shows but rarely reach the showroom floor, this time may be different.

"The No. 1 rule of auto shows is to not get lured in by the hype because a lot of it could be concept cars," said David Friedman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicle Program.

"But I do think that at least early signs are that this auto show may be different from the past and it may actually be giving a real good glimpse for some of the consumers of what might be out on the road in the next few years," he said.