Fuel Efficiency and Fun: Mixing It Up at the ’09 NAIAS

An invisible banner labeled “high gas prices” will loom over Cobo Center in Detroit when the 2009 North American International Auto Show opens to the public Sat., Jan. 17. By the time it closes Sun., Jan. 25, car-lovers will discover dozens of automotive solutions to our nation’s energy problem.

The auto show is hosting an estimated 6,000 members of the international automotive press Jan. 11 through 13. An anticipated 37,000 industry insiders tour Jan. 14 and 15. On the show’s eve, the city’s industry leaders dress up for the annual black-tie Charity Preview gala.

Honda will celebrate Earth Day 2009 by introducing its new gas-electric Insight.
Photo courtesy American Honda Motor Co.

Supervising activities for the sponsoring Detroit Auto Dealers Association are Joe Serra, senior co-chairman, who is president of the Grand Blanc-based Serra Automotive group. His co-chairman is Doug Fox, who heads Ann Arbor Automotive. Serra advises, “The NAIAS generates half a billion dollars annually in economic impact and stands along the top international shows such as Paris and Tokyo.”

Fuel efficiency will be important to the show. But the cars themselves will be the stars, featuring their usual eye-appeal along with high-tech achievements in driver controls and car entertainment.

In the race to save fuel, small cars will sprint ahead. Diane Elnick, analyst at Ward’s Automotive, says small vehicles are more popular despite lower sales overall, due to the credit crunch. She reports small car sales up 6.2 percent over last year at this time.

The show will offer a lot for car buyers interested in the fuel-saving ability of hybrid systems. According to a recent IBM prediction, every new model introduced will use some level of hybridization, or minimal stop-start technology by 2020.

While most of the hybrids combine battery-operated power and a small gas-powered engine, the cost remains a sticking point. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price on the market-leading Toyota Prius, for example, runs about $21,500 for the 2008 five-passenger hatchback-“up to $5,000 more than the MSRP on a number of small sedans with hybrid capability. Analysts, however, estimate that it costs less in the long run to own certain hybrids.

Meanwhile, Toyota debuts its new Prius at the ’09 NAIAS alongside a new Lexus hybrid. As with much of the show’s content, details on the vehicles and their prices are yet to be announced. On April 22, 2009, Honda will celebrate Earth Day by introducing its new gas-electric Insight, or Global Hybrid. The carmaker says the five-seat hatchback will be smaller and lower-priced than the present Prius.

Nissan will present its first hybrid in an Infiniti. Meanwhile, the hybrid focus is on SUVs and pickups at General Motors, which just introduced the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado hybrid pickups. Two hybrid SUVs will debut for Chrysler: the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen, both expected to increase fuel economy by 25 percent.

Still, some industry leaders are looking to other means, including engine modification, to save fuel. Ford, as an example, is touting ecoBoost, a combination of turbocharging and gasoline direct injection that’s priced at about $700. The company claims ecoBoost gives a bigger bonus for the buck than hybrids and will be on 80 percent of Ford’s North American lineup by 2012.

Visitors to the 2009 Detroit auto show will find ecoBoost available on the 3.5-liter V-6 powering the new Ford Flex crossover (car and SUV combined) and the Lincoln MKS sedan (both vehicles are on the short list for 2009 North American Car of the Year). Ford is also doubling production of its six-speed automatic transmission, which improves efficiency as the vehicle stops and starts.

In addition to hybrids, those seeking better fuel economy will have alternative fuels such as ethanol from corn and diesel from which to choose. BMW is bringing a diesel to the U.S. via its turbocharged 2009 3Series.

Another way to save gas is to turn off cylinders when not needed. The 2009 Honda Pilot SUV, for example, can switch its DOHC 3.5L V6 to either a four-cylinder or inline three-cylinder engine.

GM will have a “totally different surprise” at its exhibit, according to Scott Fosgard, GM’s director of show communications. Its focus will include electrification of the automobile and the new Chevrolet Volt for 2010 introduction.

“We have to have a dramatic shift to renewable energy, whether it’s sunlight, wind power, nuclear, electrical or some other renewable source,” says Fosgard. “If we just use 25 percent less fuel than we use now, that still won’t solve the shortage because the 16 million cars and trucks on the world’s roads now will grow by millions. General Motors has thousands of employees working on this.”

At its newly designed exhibit for Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge at NAIAS, Chrysler will unveil its own electrically operated vehicle, one that uses no gasoline, with up to three prototypes on hand. The newly privatized company is working toward a fleet of 100 electrics.

At Ford’s exhibit, the Flex arrives with stylish houndstooth interior trim, the work of a former designer for the famed fashion house, DKNY. The front-wheel-drive vehicle (AWD optional) sports a 2.6-liter six-cylinder engine and a hybrid is predicted later. Truck buyers will like the latest editions of the Ford F-Series Super Duty pickup, the Harley-Davidson and Cabela, expected here after debuting at the Los Angeles Auto Show Nov. 21-30.

The Chevy Cruze is expected to get 40 miles per gallon. Photo by Axel Wierdemann for GM Corp.

Showgoers will get a good look at the upcoming Chevrolet Cruze, slated for high volumes as a global car after introduction at the 2008 Paris motor show. The premium compact sedan will replace the Cobalt in 2010, achieving close to 40 miles per gallon. Chevy has high hopes for its Traverse, a new entry in the large crossover SUV segment, also on hand at NAIAS after debuting in Paris.

At the Lincoln display, visitors should get a peek at a concept version of the MKT, a three-row luxury crossover that arrives sometime in 2009 with ecoBoost and a fuel-saving six-speed transmission.

Toyota’s little youth-oriented subcompact, the Yaris, will expand its lineup to three vehicles, which should attract youthful attention at NAIAS. Joining Yaris’ three-door liftback and four-door sedan will be a new five-door liftback. All three vehicles will use a 106-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an optional four-speed automatic transmission.

VW’s Golf VI GTI is better known as the Rabbit in the U.S. Photo by Michel de Vries.

VW showed its sixth-generation Golf this fall in Paris, so you can bet the vehicle, known as the Rabbit in the U.S., will be hopping into Detroiters’ view. Visitors to the VW exhibit also will find a 50-state TDI (turbo direct injection) diesel version of its big 3.0-liter, V-6 Touareg SUV.

Some nice treats for car enthusiasts will make their first appearance since the 2008 NAIAS. First is the Chevrolet muscle car, the reborn Camaro, going into production in February. It will sport 422 horsepower from a 6.2-liter V8. As for fuel economy, if you must ask, it could be worse: about 23 mpg on the highway. Second is Dodge’s high-performance Challenger, a rear-wheel-drive five-passenger two-door coupe. Its muscle comes from a 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 producing 370 horsepower with a five-speed automatic. It hit showrooms in August with an mpg of 16/city, 23/highway.

After all the serious emphasis on fuel economy, it will be fun to see the arrival of cars in the high-performance category.

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the print issue of November/December 2008 Corp!)