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Observations on the 2009 North American International Auto Show
It's hard to be green when the vast fields around you have turned brown and crisp under the glare of negative economic rays that make folks wonder if the crop, as we know it, can be saved.
The answer, likely, will be no. Detroit and its auto industry will survive, but it will have to take its place at the long table, no longer sitting athrone like the king overlooking the bacchanalia down in the dining pit.
Everybody's in the pit, chomping for the meat of sales and profit.
Yet green was the theme at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
There were no great rumbles from manufacturers about the BIGGEST truck, the BIGGEST SUV.
Instead, there was a quiesence in the acceptance of a new reality. Even with gasoline prices back down to what at least appear to be reasonable in U.S. terms, Americans seem to have learned something from the burn of last year's fuel pump explosion.
They are looking to downsize, to save money, in many instances searching for not only more fuel efficient cars, but also changing their driving habits.
And U.S. car companies appear ready to respond — if it's not too late.
Perhaps most symbolic of an overall downsizing, in what has been an annual gathering of kings and bacchanilia, was that the Firehouse, an honest-to-God brick structure from which jakes used to rumble on life-saving missions, then taken over as a bar and food joint run by Daimler-Chrysler, and thence a liberated Chrysler, was closed.
No longer would real journalists, too many fake journalists (who have always somehow obtained credentials for this show) and celebrities gather for unlimited free libations and food.
Back then, you could see Jay Leno at the bar where Daimler-Chrysler honcho Dieter Zietsch served drinks to folks who made far less money than he. And there were no Jeeps crashing through windows for introduction, no aerialists performing high above crowds in abandoned Detroit buildings recast as ampitheaters for adoring throngs, and a toned down industry presence overall.
But the Firehouse wasn't the only thing gone. So, too, were entire car companies: Nissan, Porsche, Mitsubishi. Not worth the time and money they said.
In the field of green, there were these entries: General Motors again showed the Volt electric car, which is supposed to be ready for U.S. electrical outlets by 2011. But as I look at plug-in electric cars, two questions arise:
First, if the world plugs in, where does the electricity come from? Coal-fired plants, nuclear plants?
And if you live in a city, or even a tight suburb — places where the plug-ins' 40-mile range would make the most sense — how do you run an extension cord from your car to your nearest electrical outlet without it being stolen or otherwise vandalized?
Toyota offered up its third generation Prius, by far the runaway leader in hybrid gasoline/electric sales thus far. The hype said this one will get 50 miles per gallon overall as opposed to the past Prius at 46 mpg. That I'll believe when I drive it, especially in cold weather.
And although it had already been introduced at last fall's Los Angeles show, I'm putting my money on the Ford Fusion Hybrid. As a 2010 model, it will be in showrooms this spring billed at 40 miles per gallon or better. Since Ford did the best job of all companies in putting hybrid into an SUV — albeit the smallish Escape — I'm ready to believe.
However, there's also a Ford Motor Co. clone, the Mercury Milan Hybrid, which makes me ask, in tough economic times, "Why?"
Which brings me to the first darling of the hybrid sect — and yes, its early buyers were a sect — the Honda Insight and its return. Welcome back, I say, as less a gimmick and more of a real "car." With its 88 horsepower gasoline engine, complimented with a 13- horsepower electric motor, it could well, in real world driving, top 60 miles per gallon.
Detroit, long the king of auto shows, has lost some of its regal touch. It will be worth watching Chicago, next on the list and a growing favorite among car companies and the press, to see what sort of trimming of the sails is to come.