Automakers Need to Master the Hot-Rod and the Hybrid

By Warren Brown
Sunday, June 14, 2009

Electric cars -- all-electric, gas-electric hybrid, and plug-in electric extended range models -- are becoming more popular. In some cases -- the new Ford Fusion Hybrid mid-size sedan and the revised Honda Insight Hybrid are examples -- they also are becoming more affordable, a welcome development that is bound to increase their appeal in the marketplace.

But cars powered by fossil-fuel engines, gasoline and diesel models chief among them, will continue to rule the road for the foreseeable future.

Thus, we have a General Motors apparently at odds with itself.

The company appears to be betting its future on the plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt, a mid-size family sedan scheduled for market in calendar year 2010. Pre-production models of the Volt, driven for this column, can run 40 miles at highway speeds on electric power only.

That means most U.S. commuters, who drive less than 40 miles daily, can motor between work and home all week without using a single drop of gasoline. That's a big deal for energy conservation and the air we breathe. Fewer exhaust fumes from automotive tailpipes mean cleaner air.

But the same GM that is going "green" with the Volt is winning kudos from automotive enthusiasts for its new, 426-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro SS sports coupe, a car that gets 16 miles per gallon in the city and 24 miles per gallon on the highway sucking premium unleaded gasoline "for best performance."

That seems to be a contradiction, a form of corporate schizophrenia that some in the media, including this fine journal, say characterizes GM's historical two-step dance -- one step forward, another step back -- with progress. But there's nothing contradictory, nor schizophrenic about it.

The truth is that no traditional, mass-market car company -- neither GM, nor Ford, nor Toyota, to name a few -- can survive in today's market selling only electric cars or other "green" automobiles. There are too many buyers out there hankering for the power, feel and sound of a big fossil-fuel engine endowed with big horsepower and lots of torque.

To ignore those people is to leave money on the table. Most automobile manufacturers, foreign and domestic, are not going to do that, especially not in a market that worships cheap gasoline.

That explains why Ford has the 315-horsepower Mustang GT sports coupe (combined 19 miles per gallon city/highway) and the Ford Fusion Hybrid mid-size family sedan. The Fusion Hybrid gets 41 miles per gallon in the city, where its electrical system does most of the work. It gets 39 miles per gallon on the highway, where its 2.5-liter, 191-horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine carries most of the load.

Similar pairings are seen throughout today's automobile industry. Toyota, for example, has won environmental laurels, which it has worn proudly and much to its marketing advantage, for its gas-electric hybrid Prius compact sedan (51 miles per gallon in the city, where it does its best work; 48 miles per gallon on the highway, where the driving load shifts to its 1.8-liter, 134 horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine).

But Toyota just as aggressively has pursued fiscal greenery through sales of models such as its FJ Cruiser mid-size sport-utility vehicle (4-liter, 239-horsepower V-6, 16 miles per gallon city/20 miles per gallon highway) and its giant Land Cruiser SUV (5.7-liter, 381-horsepower V-8, 13 miles per gallon city/18 miles per gallon highway).

The bottom line is that automobile manufacturers will make whatever automobile consumers will take. Government regulation can shape consumer choices. But ultimately, consumers control the market.

At the moment, even in these dire economic times, those consumers are asking for power and fuel economy, trucks and fuel-sippers, land yachts such as the Toyota Land Cruiser and cars as tiny as the Smart ForTwo.

Electric models, regardless of their configuration, have won their place in the market. But anyone thinking that electric vehicles are little more than creepy, go-slow, environmental science projects on wheels had better think again.

Small, independent car companies such as California-based Tesla Motors and AFS Trinity Power of Bellevue, Wash., have come up with electric models that give their gasoline counterparts a very fast run for the money. Tesla's all-electric sports cars have succeeded enough in that endeavor to attract the attention of Porsche, the longtime German leader of high-performance motoring.

Porsche has purchased one Tesla sports car "for study." Depending on how that study turns out, Porsche might make a substantial investment in Tesla, according to industry sources.

After driving an "extreme hybrid" AFS Trinity version of a Saturn Vue SUV, which beats all GM Saturn Vue models in fuel-economy and straight-line acceleration, here's suggesting that the Penske Group, Saturn's new owner, get in contact with AFS Trinity.

Penske's business acumen combined with AFS Trinity's wizardry in turning an electric vehicle into something hot-rod junkies want to drive could eliminate any contradiction, real or imagined, between the pursuit of power and fun in motoring and the quest for fuel efficiency.

The truth is that consumers want both.

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