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As carmakers plug 'green,' Washington Auto Show consumers have plenty of questions

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010; A12

"Where's the tailpipe?" asks a middle-age man as he steps off the escalator at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and spots the Fiat 500, a sporty, smaller car designed to appeal to the Mini Cooper set. "It's electric?"

Yes. It's electric, just like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf and a host of other cars making an appearance this week at the annual Washington Auto Show.

This year's show is heavy on the green, with 65,000 square feet of what show organizers call the Advanced Technology SuperHighway, dedicated to alternative-fuel cars and companies developing the infrastructure that would fuel them.

The unmistakable message is that the day of the electric and hybrid car is at hand. But it's also clear that there are plenty of questions among the crowd about how this alternatively fueled world is supposed to work.

"What if you're driving and you don't have any power left?" asks John Wu, who is checking out the Chevy Volt with some friends. "Won't you just be stuck there?" The guys make cracks about Volt drivers running low on juice and pulling up to a stranger's house, begging for access to an outlet.

Despite the auto industry's tough times, optimism is still standard equipment. This past week, Toyota made recall news that analysts warned might damage its reputation for years to come. But you'd never know it from the company's floor space, where three women, clad in short red dresses, sang a harmonized ode to the Toyota Sienna, a minivan that is "rooomy, shaaapely [and offers] sooo much saaafety."

Still, some regular attendees said that the show felt a bit more muted than it did in years past. "You can definitely tell that things have been scaled back," said Shawn Walkey, who came from Stafford to check out the latest models.

Walkey was disappointed to find that this year there was no Jeep test-drive area.

Mac Lynch and his wife, Linda, came in search of a replacement for their 10-year-old Honda Accord, a car they decided on after attending the show a decade ago. Now the two want to replace it with a midsize sport-utility vehicle that gets good mileage. "We don't want to pay the premium for a hybrid," he said.

The couple said they like the auto show's window-shopping that comes without sales pressure. "They don't have the hungry sharks swimming around," Lynch said. Though the couple just bought a Mini Cooper, they checked out the trunk space and toffee-colored interior of that car's latest model.

Mahi Reddy and some of his colleagues stood around the Nissan Leaf. Reddy, chief executive of the Annapolis-based SemaConnect, aims to build electric meters that could be used by electric cars parked at apartment buildings and offices.

Reddy compares the Volt and Leaf to the iPhone. In its early days, Reddy said, people criticized Apple's smart phone as too expensive. "But in the next two years, this is going to transform the market," he predicted.

Maybe, maybe not. Ragnar Borgh, a car aficionado who lives in Sterling, is one of the skeptics. "Every company is trying too hard to go green," he said, snapping a picture of a striking Mercedes featuring the "gullwing" doors of some of the company's classic cars. "The Volt should have come out a year ago, and they still can't tell me how much it's going to cost."

But then again, he admitted, he also doesn't know how much Mercedes will ask for the AMG SLS, but that it will certainly be out of his range.

"It's the most beautiful car at the show," he said with a sigh.

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