Sunday, April 12, 2009

It's been a tough couple of years for car companies, especially American ones, and it showed at

It's been a tough couple of years for car companies, especially American ones, and it showed at this year's New York International Auto Show, which opened to the public yesterday and will run through April 19. Sure, there were some fun concepts revealed at the show, like the sleek and bat-like Hyundai Nuvis Hybrid and GM and Segway's confounding PUMA. But the hot tech and accessories that we look for were mainly absent, and when we saw them, they weren't particularly impressive (see Honda's dog-friendly concept and Ford's R.F.I.D.-based Transit Connect concept). Instead of seeming like creative, new ideas, these concepts seemed like fancy (but not too expensive!) decoys, meant to distract audiences and press from looming bankruptcies and restructurings. So, what's the good news? Car companies emphasis on delivering cars with better fuel efficiency numbers seemed real this year, with a real shift in emphasis from mph to mpg. Read more about it after the jump.

Last year after attending the New York International Auto Show, we looked to the experts and asked if the show was finally going green. The answers were mixed, but one thing seemed clear: Though the show had plenty of hybrid and electric concepts, the big and exciting launches were muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger that didn't take the fuel efficiency into account.

This year, it was a completely different scene, and not just because it was unclear which of the brands in attendance will actually survive the economic downturn and coming "Carpocalypse." One encouraging trend was that although gas prices are far lower than they were last summer, mpg figures have replaced mph ones as the first thing we learned about cars at the show.

It used to be you could ask a representative about a particular car or truck's mileage, and his answer would be vague, or a straight out "I don't know." It just wasn't on anybody's mind. This year, there were no "green" Hummers to insult our intelligence. Instead, Mitsubishi confirmed that its electric car, the iMiev is coming to the U.S., hopefully sometime before 2012. Scion unveiled a "micro-subcompact," the iQ. While most concepts take many years to see the light of day (or are never produced), the Times points out that the Scion iQ is a different kind of concept, one that started with a stock car, the Toyota iQ, instead of a whimsical idea.

Mercedes debuted a powerful but hybrid SUV, the ML 450. Even the company's high horsepower E63 AMG (starting at $85,000 +) uses 12% less gas than its predecessor. It's still a woefully inefficient car, but that sort of note in a press release struck us as important: Mercedes doesn't make sports car/sedan hybrids for Toyota Prius customers, but what we're seeing is incremental improvements in fuel economy across the board, even where cars haven't gone hybrid or electric. The GMC Terrain SUV was another example of this trend--it's a new, non-hybrid SUVs that get 30 mpg on the highway.

Fully electric cars like the iMiev, the Chevy Volt and others won't hit dealerships until 2010 at the very, very earliest. But our infrastructure may not be quite ready to charge massive numbers of batteries using clean energy so that we don't have to run our cars on coal--that's the kind of work that needs to be done in tandem with the development of affordable electric cars. We're getting there, but it's heartening to see, in the meantime, that the economic crisis has lead consumers, and therefore manufacturers to care about fuel efficiency. Here's hoping that at next year's show car companies (and the entire economy) will seem healthier, but that the focus on greener cars will remain.

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