Fun is back in style

Among those of us who troop regularly through press events at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, 2012 will go down as the year automakers once again felt comfortable admitting that people do, indeed, occasionally take cars out on race tracks and have fun with them.

This is in stark contrast to recent years when numerous high-profile politicians made appearances at the Detroit show. They were there ostensibly to show support for a beleaguered U.S. industry. The not-so-hidden agenda was to check up on how Detroit automakers were spending taxpayer bailout money. In those glum days, it was inconvenient to concede that car buyers considered anything other than mpg ratings in their purchase decisions.

Now that Detroit is on better financial footing, it seems as though automakers don't feel the need to apologize for the fact that people still like to look at fast cars. Scion, for example, had no qualms highlighting a 600-hp drift car during its press conference at the show. Shelby American proudly unveiled a 50th anniversary remanufactured Mustang with 800 hp. Race cars also figured prominently at the Kia and Honda displays.

Those who enjoy bashing Detroit automakers should note that the "horsepower" theme wasn't just a U.S. phenomenon. Mini, for example, unveiled a new roadster with a 208-hp option, which strikes even me as a lot of power for a car with a small footprint. Porsche's revamped 911 has 385 hp and a seven-speed transmission. Hyundai's new Azera sedan also features an unapologetic 293 hp.

You might wonder what happened to all the green powertrains that have marqueed other shows. They were certainly in evidence at Detroit - the new Ford Fusion hybrid got a lot of attention even from competing automakers, and plug-in hybrid pickups, vans, and SUVs from Via Motors looked interesting. But for the most part, they weren't the main focus of attention, and I believe it is easy to see why: Cars with green powertrains are simply out of reach for the average Joe or Jane regardless of how they feel about mpg or peak oil. The hybrid Fusion, for example, starts at $28,700. The Via Motors pickup, based around the GMC Sierra, will start at $79,000 and is practical only for fleets that can run it 24/7 and justify its price based on overall savings in maintenance and fuel.

The least expensive hybrid money will buy is the new Prius c, a car not designed for NBA players. The diminutive c is 157.3 inches long, 19.1 inches shorter than an ordinary Prius and has a base price of about $19,000. A Toyota spokesperson told me, with a straight face, that the Prius c is designed as an affordable first car for millennials.

Perhaps he's right, but a Prius c -- after adding dealer-this-and-that, taxes, and a few nonluxury options -- could sell for a figure in the mid $20,000 range. It is hard to visualize such a car being bought by 25-year-olds forced to live with their parents due to lack of funds.

That, in a nutshell, symbolizes the problem for all vehicles featuring green powertrains. They are not realistic options for a large segment of the shrinking middle class. But if Chrysler was somehow able to put a hybrid powertrain in its new Dodge Dart and keep the same $15,995 sticker the Dart now carries, I'd bet buyers would be on long waiting lists trying to get one.

-- Leland, Teschler, Editor

Addendum, 1-19-12 :

It looks as though the Chinese have the same issues with 'green' cars as we do. From an AFP article: "A salesman at the main Shanghai showroom of Chinese car maker BYD said the dealer sold only one electric car and two hybrid cars -- which combine a conventional internal combustion engine and an electric motor -- last year......'People hesitate to choose cars with a high price,' said BYD sales manager Zhang Jiankun."

You can read the full article here: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iLHpJbMBm0aOISHHfiz0FwwViPIg?docId=CNG.f43307fb63249424e9901eaaf078b7bc.211

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Lee Teschler

Leland serves as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design. He has 34 years of Service and holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan, a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of...
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