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Hybrids, EVs everywhere at Detroit auto show

Wheels contributor Peter Gorrie runs down the alternative fuel vehicles on parade at the Detroit auto show.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

DETROIT — Ten years ago, only two gasoline-electric hybrid cars were displayed at the North American International Auto Show, Jim Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, said earlier this week when he unveiled his company’s latest versions of the technology.

How things have changed: Hybrids are everywhere at the show’s current edition, and most carmakers are also showcasing plug-in hybrid and/or all-electric models.

“Hybrid technology has arrived” and “engaged our industry,” Lentz declared.

Whether it will engage consumers remains to be seen. Conventional hybrids are still a tiny segment of the new-car market and the more advanced alternatives sell only in the thousands.

There is the promise of choice now, although many manufacturers are offering only concepts or prototypes. Some are hedging their bets, waiting to see how the market develops before committing to production.

Here is what’s gleaming under the show’s brilliant lights:

Plug-in hybrids:

Chevrolet’s Volt is in attendance, although no longer attracting much media attention. It has been on sale for more than a year, selling about 7,600 units. It promises up to 60 kilometres of all-electric driving on a fully-charged battery and around seven litres per 100 kilometres gasoline consumption in hybrid mode.

It’s an “extended range” hybrid, meaning that most of the time, its three-cylinder internal combustion engine runs a generator to charge the battery, rather than directly powering the wheels. The Canadian price starts at $41,545, before incentives.

Toyota’s Prius plug-in is to be sold in 13 American states this year, and the rest of the country in 2013. It will travel up to 20 kilometres on battery power and achieve fuel consumption of less than four litres per 100 kilometres in hybrid mode.

The base U.S. price will be $32,000 before any green incentives, and an upscale version — same power trains but extra bits of technology and luxury — will sell for $39,525. Plans and pricing for Canada aren’t yet set.

A plug-in variant of Ford’s restyled mid-size Fusion is to arrive early in 2013. It will share electric components with the C-Max five-passenger crossover, on a similar timetable.

The company is offering few details, but says the Fusion Energi will achieve the electric equivalent of 2.3 litres per 100 kilometres during the brief periods it operates on battery power alone. Prices haven’t been announced.

BMW is still tweaking its i8 sports car, due in early 2014. This sleek beauty has electric motors to power the front wheels and a three-cylinder gasoline engine for the rear. The result is a claimed zero-to-100 acceleration under five seconds, and less than three litres of fuel consumed per 100 kilometres.

Also key are a carbon-fibre passenger compartment and aluminum chassis.

Mercedes-Benz is displaying a range-extended plug-in, the B Class E-Cell. It claims a 100-kilometre range under lithium-ion battery power. When the battery runs low and the car is traveling below about 60 kilometres per hour, the three-cylinder internal-combustion engine runs the generator.

At higher speeds, both the electric and gasoline motors directly drive the front wheels. It’s to go into production in 2014. No prices yet.

Volvo’s XC60 concept promises about 60 kilometres of all-electric driving and 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres in hybrid mode. This gasoline-electric technology follows the diesel hybrid V60, which is only for Europe.

The XC60 is a crossover, but the technology could be used in other Volvo models. Timing and prices aren’t yet available. Volvo will seek consumer information in the United States and China “for a business case,” a spokesperson said. He wasn’t sure where Canada fits.

Honda unveiled a conventionally powered Accord coupe concept at the media preview and said a plug-in hybrid sedan will follow in about a year. It will run for up to 22 kilometres of city driving, with a top speed of 100 kilometres per hour, under the power of its six-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.

For longer distances, the electric system will be joined by a two-litre, four cylinder i-VTEC gasoline engine. For highway cruising, only internal combustion will drive the wheels. Again, no prices or Canadian plans.

Utah-based VIA Motors is offering a plug-in, half-ton pickup truck and a three-quarter ton van. The company takes Chevrolet vehicles with the smallest available V6 and adds a powerful electric system. It’s an extended-range configuration, like a Volt but able to handle vehicles up to 3,200 kilograms.

Via says the trucks will lease for about $300 per month in the United States but can save operators up to $700 in fuel and maintenance. Plans are to make them available to individual consumers. Some 33 prototypes are being tested. Commercial production is to start this summer of a planned total of 2,000 this year and 20,000 in 2013.

Battery Electric

Nissan’s Leaf has been on the market for a year, selling 21,000 globally, and, like the Volt, seems to be being taken for granted despite the exceptional technology that takes it up to 160 kilometres between charges.

The Leaf, which starts at $38,395 in Canada, will get upgrades when production begins this year in Tennessee, including a more powerful onboard charger — 6.6-kilowatt instead of 3.3 — to reduce recharging times. Nissan’s plans also include a version for its upscale Infiniti brand. It might be unveiled at the New York Auto Show, in April.

Nissan is also displaying the NV200 concept, a boxy electric van with curvy design flourishes, to be launched in 2014. A spokesperson says it’s intended mainly for commercial use — it has a 680-kilogram payload — but might be suitable for some families.

It’s based on Leaf technology and makes the same range and speed claims even though it’s much larger and 40 kilograms heavier. A gasoline version is already sold in 40 countries.

Also on display, and arriving next are Toyota’s RAV4, to be built in Ontario, the Ford Focus EV, which began production in December, Honda’s Fit and the Smart Electric Drive. All will be available this year, although in limited markets and numbers.

The Fit starts going to California lease customers in July and the company expects to produce 1,000 units — at U.S. costs of $399 per month or $33,000 purchase — by the end of the year.

The third-generation Smart EV goes in sale in the United States this fall at a price that hasn’t been announced but, a spokesperson said, would be below the Leaf.

The new version is more powerful that the previous prototypes, with the motor boosted from 30 to 55 kilowatts, a top speed raised to 125 kilometres per hour, and a stronger, safer battery pack.

After using cells from Tesla, Smart now gets its batteries “practically in-house.”

Hyundai says the 80-kilowatt motor and lithium-polymer battery in its Avante EV, based on the compact Elantra, will deliver a 180-kilometre range between charges and a top speed of 145 kilometres per hour – if and when it’s built.

It’s not even a concept yet, a spokesperson said. “It’s technology in development. We’re trying to gauge interest . . . what people are looking for.”

Chevrolet promises an EV version of its tiny Spark, possibly in 2014, but no details are available. ”It’s not a car yet,” a spokesperson said. “They’ve announced it’s coming” but “it doesn’t exist yet.”

A spokesperson for Toyota’s Scion brand said its IQ electric model is in a similar situation. So, too, is Audi’s A3 e-tron crossover. “Plans haven’t been released,” a spokesperson said.

Tesla has a Model S prototype on hand. The California company says it has sold out its first-year run of 5,000 cars even though production hasn’t yet started. Deliveries are to begin in early summer, and Tesla is taking orders for cars that will be ready next year.

The Model S is the champion of range claims, with a top distance between charges of 480 kilometres — for those who buy the biggest of three battery sizes, at a U.S. cost of nearly $80,000.

BMW’s i3 urban car is to be available by the end of next year. Its most distinctive features are the carbon-fibre passenger compartment and aluminum chassis, designed to reduce weight and boost safety.

It’s designed to go 160 kilometres between charges at a governed top speed of 150 kilometres per hour. About 80 per cent of the concept version will survive to the production model, but the battery and other components are still being tweaked.

Fuel Cell

The Honda Clarity fuel cell car is looking dated and worn after so many auto show appearances.

About 27 are still in use, on lease, in California. The company has no production schedule, a spokesperson said.

Hyundai’s Tuscon fuel cell crossover and a new concept from Toyota, based on technology tested in the Highlander prototype, are due in 2015 but in limited numbers, spokespeople said.

California-based Coda Automotive announced it will offer two battery sizes for its EV sedan. The original is said to provide up to 250 kilometres of range and, in the U.S. will cost just under $40,000, before incentives.

The range of the new, smaller-battery option is 190 kilometres, at $37,250 (U.S.), the company says.

Coda’s main distinction is a thermal management system intended to let the battery work more efficiently at more extreme temperatures. Production began in November; American deliveries start this month.

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