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Schizoid automakers get green but stay mean

The auto industryis exploring ways to let drivers have fun and be comfortable while still satisfying their desire to reduce their impact on the environment.
Image: The Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 Coupe
Your next car might be a hybrid, but admit it, you really want this  Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 Coupe, introduced at the Detroit auto show.Jerry Mendoza / AP

This week’s Detroit auto show is touted as highlighting the greening of the car business, with every imaginable fuel-saving technology on display, including hybrid electric, plug-in electric, fuel cell, diesel and direct gasoline injection. In short, everything short of the P.T. Barnum-esque late-night infomercial magnetic fuel polarizer.

But across the aisle from energy misers like the Chrysler ecoVoyager and Saturn Flexstreme are American muscle cars like the Cadillac CTS-V, Dodge Challenger SRT8, Chevrolet Camaro and the usual auto show eye candy from Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini.

Detroit’s schizophrenic dichotomy might induce cognitive dissonance in some showgoers, but what’s really at work here is an industry that’s furiously exploring ways to let customers enjoy the elbow room and performance to which they have become accustomed while reducing future vehicles’ fuel consumption.

It’s a costly proposition, and one that’s discouraging to some driving enthusiasts who fear the remaining fun could be sapped from driving.

In response, automakers are also showing off state-of-the-art performance technology, the sales of which can help pay for the moon-shot development effort going into electric-drive vehicles. The mere existence of such cars is enough to relax the furrow from the brow of concerned driving enthusiasts, observers say.

“You can’t take all the fun out of owning an automobile,” said Joe Barker, senior manager of North American sales forecasting at market researcher CSM Worldwide. “There is some enjoyment that should come out of car ownership.”

That the show cars should fall at opposite ends of the performance and economy spectrums should come as no surprise, according to Barker. 

“It pretty much shows that Americans have mixed feelings when it comes to the automobile and the environment,” he said. “The love of horsepower is deep-rooted, yet high fuel prices and environmental concerns have Americans looking at efficiency. They want to do what’s responsible environmentally.”

Brian Chee, head analyst for Autobytel’s Web site, says that “people are really waking up to the idea that there’s another emerging way to get down the road.”

Thirty-eight percent of respondents to a survey on said that gas mileage was a top priority for them, compared to only 10 percent who said they want more power, Chee said. But 53 percent of the same group admitted to having upgraded in horsepower with their last vehicle purchase, he pointed out.

Performance will always be a great draw for car buyers and enthusiasts, Chee said. Automakers build limited-production dream machines to reflect glory on themselves and pocket a profit from wealthy customers who don’t mind paying a premium for something special.

Chevrolet’s goal with its 600-plus horsepower 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, shown at this week’s Detroit show, is to demonstrate “what an American supercar can deliver at a price that trumps exotics that cost two, three or four times as much — and does so with exceptional drivability,” said Ed Peper, Chevrolet general manager.

Everybody is happy, and the environment doesn’t really suffer for it, because even “bargain” supercars like the ZR1 cost $100,000, so they sell in exclusive numbers and are frequently garage queens that see little time on the road.

“The [Dodge] Viper, Bentley — cars with engines that are getting 9 mpg — [that’s] a real small segment of the automotive market,” CSM Worldwide’s Barber said. “The growing number of smaller cars we are seeing on the road far offsets whatever pollutants the larger cars may be putting out there.”

Even stalwart environmental watchdogs can agree that low volume “play” cars aren’t relevant in the larger scheme of environmental concern.

“It’s not the range of offerings per se but the distribution of vehicles that affects the bottom line,” explained Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

Making efficient mainstream products in high-volume sales segments is the priority, she said.

“Outliers are not such a big deal,” said Langer. “You’re always going to have a variety of vehicles across the spectrum of size and the spectrum of power.”

Langer is encouraged by the proliferation of environmentally friendly technology beyond the original niches where it was initially deployed. 

“If you were looking at hybrids in the early days, you were buying a compact car,” she said, adding that today the use of hybrid technology stretches from subcompacts up to the largest pickup trucks.

Consumers agree with Langer, according to MyRide’s Web survey. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they view the introduction of vehicles like the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, a full-size SUV that manages 20 mpg in the city and on the highway, as a positive development, Chee said.

The mainstreaming of fuel-efficient technologies is crucial for manufacturers to achieve the newly-endorsed federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, said Barker. And the shift toward greener power is paying dividends for manufacturers’ reputations.

MyRide’s survey found that more than half of respondents had a more positive perception of General Motors than they had one year ago, due in part to the company’s high-profile Volt hybrid-electric concept car, which was first introduced at last year’s Detroit auto show.

As for the new hot rods, maybe they aren’t as green-unfriendly as they appear. The Corvette has historically extracted stunningly good fuel economy from its iconic smallblock V8 engine, observed Barker.

The 2008 Corvette earned a 26 mpg highway score on the EPA’s tougher new fuel-economy test, and Dave Hill, Corvette’s recently retired chief engineer, reported that engineers working on the car could achieve a fuel economy 30 mpg.

So the supercharged ZR1 could surprise us when its official fuel-economy numbers are released, potentially offering some lucky drivers the ability to have fun and feel socially responsible at the same time.