Mr. Green Car: Chicago Auto Show 2010 through green eyes

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By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I actually have blue eyes, but I see through “green” eyes. Everywhere I look, I’m looking for something that is better for the environment. What’s bad, what’s good. If it’s bad, I’m looking for a way to end it or improve it. If it’s good, I’m looking for a way to make it more common. Recently, I took these “eyes” to the Chicago Auto Show.

I attended the show with three friends—Dan, Eric and Eric’s car-crazy 12-year-old son, Alex. We car-pooled in Dan’s 1997 Buick LeSabre. That’s green—Dan claims it gets 30 mpg on the highway and the seats were full. As anyone who has ever been to the big show knows, your feet are the main form of transportation there. Lots of cars and trucks—but they don’t move. The show was definitely smaller than years past, cleverly disguised as the same size by moving the walls in with panels. That’s OK, it was still plenty big. So big, we made no effort to see it all. And with that said, while I’m commenting about what I saw that was “green”—I may have missed something entirely. What we did see was near universal display by manufacturers of new cars that were more efficient, going to be more efficient, or going hybrid and pure electric vehicles. Everyone is now on the bandwagon, although you sometimes had to hunt through the acres of not-so-efficient vehicles to find the green ones.

Toyota's "plug-in" Prius. Still not available. Charging stations like this would be in public places.

Every vehicle that was a plug-in electric hybrid had its power port door left open—which made them all look oddly like they were at a gas station during a fill up. Sometimes they’d have the electric “hose” there, too, but all were secured to keep us from playing with them. Most, if not all, were capable of fast charging with 220 volts in a half hour or so.

Displays ranged from prototypes of future Indy racers that would go 230 mph on a mere 300 horsepower—to Model T Fords and earlier cars. We saw the Chevy Volt in the flesh as well as the awesomely powerful Fiskers high-end hybrid luxury sport sedan and convertible. We saw several new hybrids in show-car form that would be nice cars for everyday use, and we saw some that were pure show car—something that’s becoming a rarity these austere days. A pure show car is something fanciful, styling inside and out that is futuristic or a bit over-the-top. It’s nice to see manufacturers who are still willing to allow their designers to show us their dreams.

Fiat had an electric version of their 500 on display with the help of twin Italian sisters.

Plenty of everyday practical cars were on display—in fact, that’s about 90 percent of what is at the auto show—vehicles you can go buy right now. In the world of green cars and trucks, we were surprised by the under-emphasis by Toyota and Honda. Sure, they had their current hybrid lineup there, but not too much of where they are going in the future. The manufacturer who hands-down had the best display of electric vehicle and hybrid technology was Ford. They had a large kiosk with a Fusion hybrid engine/motor cut-away along with battery packs and controllers to look at. They had tech staff that could answer any technical question—as well as tell a good joke. Nearby was the soon-to-be-available Ford Transit EV—a small, all-electric delivery van. Not far from that was the 2011 Fiesta, a revisit to the efficient small car without hybrid technology—promising 40 mpg with a novel new 6-speed automatic transmission that uses two dry clutches. There was a cut-away of this innovative transmission to look at, too. Ford had more area devoted to green technology than all the others. I came away impressed. They may have had a new Focus EV there, but I did not bump into it. Like the Nissan Leaf, it will be among the first production electric cars you can buy.

You can buy a gas powered Transit now. Later this year the all-electric version is supposed to be available.

There was another swoopy electric delivery van on the floor as well near the Bridgestone Tire display. The Bridgestone people had a display showing new fuel-efficient tire technology, as well as a BIG new truck tire intended to replace the dual tires on an 18-wheel tractor-trailer. While these new tires are somewhat more fuel-efficient, their main advantage is that if you upgrade to a whole set—you save 1,600 pounds of tire weight. That means you can haul 1,600 pounds more load—which is something important to the likes of refuse haulers.

As the weeks roll toward spring, Mr. Green Car will highlight some of the vehicles and technology that was on display at the auto show. When asked what vehicle you’d take home—I said, “the Chevy Volt.” Not so much for the car that it is, but to have one of the first ones would be a great opportunity to promote efficient driving. Believe me, the Volt’s styling is not breaking any new ground. Now if we can just get General Motors to understand that people WILL buy these cars if they make them.

A Ford technician explains the cutaway of a Fusion engine/electric motors (2) system.

Lastly, someone asked me what makes me hopeful about the future. Without hesitation, I said, “1 million Priuses.” One million people in the world have sought out a very efficient car for their transportation needs. The popularity of this one car makes me very hopeful that we’ve turned a corner—where in the very near future the V-8 SUV will be as quaintly out of date as those wood-paneled Model Ts.

From the Feb. 24-Mar. 2, 2010 issue

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