Friday, November 21, 2008

News From the L.A. Auto Show - Part 5 (Final)

This is the final post in a 5-part article regarding the Los Angeles Auto Show. Read Part 1, Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4.

Next stop, GM. GM suffers from the same legacy-induced poor management and infatuation with over-proliferation of vehicle brands as Ford and Chrysler, except GM has even more brands that it is staggering to maintain. Its future development is hinging on fuel cell, while its current hybrid offerings are a full line of gasoline/electric vehicles.

On display were the gas/electric Chevrolet cars of 2009 Malibu Hybrid ($26,225, MPG 26/34), 2009 Silverado Hybrid, and 2009 Tahoe Hybrid.

The 2009 Malibu Hybrid gets slightly less MPG than the Camry Hybrid but is priced the same. HybridCars.com offers an interesting review of this Malibu Hybrid, comparing it to the Camry. If you prefer GM vehicles over, let's say, Toyota then the Malibu Hybrid offers you a second, noteworthy sedan option. The Saturn Aura Hybrid (a GM brand, $26,685, MPG 26/34) is, again like Ford's brand excesses, just a repeat of the Malibu Hybrid under a different brand name.

The 2009 Silverado Hybrid is actually not going to be available until early 2009 but is a leap forward in terms of being the first hybrid pickup truck.

The 2009 Tahoe Hybrid is available now at select dealers and is pricey --$51,405, and for a 4x4 the MPG is 20/20. This doubles the city MPG (compared to a regular Tahoe) but is $14,000 more than the base model so to buy a hybrid large SUV with significant towing capacity is really going to cost you. If you don't need such a large SUV, then go with something like the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid or 2009 Saturn VUE Hybrid (which I talk about below) for half the price. GM's GMC 2009 Yukon Hybrid is basically the same price, same MPG, same everything at the Tahoe Hybrid -- note to GM, just stick with one brand and save yourself a half billion dollars.

GM also has the Cadillac brand. Within Cadillac, the only green vehicle is the 2009 Cadillac Escalade ($72,865, MPG 20/21). Essentially, again, this is the same vehicle as the Tahoe Hybrid or Tahoe Yukon, just with the Cadillac sticker slapped on and a lux-induced interior/exterior -- that's what you're paying $21,000 more for -- prestige.

Finally, under GM's Saturn there's also the 2009 Vue Hybrid ($28,625, MPG 34/32). If you're looking for a hybrid SUV, then I would compare this SUV with the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid. They are priced similarly and get basically the same MPG. You would want to test drive both, see which one gives you the most room and maneuverability, compare features and reviews, and then make a choice between the two.

In my last stop at the show, I visited BMW. BMW is hyping up its "EfficientDynamics" term, which really just means it is reducing fuel consumption and emissions. Available in 2009 is a BMW 7-Series which they are saying is a hybrid vehicle line using a lithium-ion battery, but little real information exists on the actual offering -- which keeps BMW's hybrid offerings as concept driven for now.

That said, car batteries for these hybrid cars have usually been NiMH batteries. But most people believe we are headed toward lithium-ion batteries if the manufacturers can overcome some safety and manufacturing issues. Here's a history of batteries and where we are going. With the increased use of batteries in the world, one can only hope there is not only environmentally friendly production and material sourcing but that used batteries are reclaimed and recycled.

In Conclusion:

In all, I would say the industry is moving full throttle with hybrid (gas/electric) and clean diesel technologies. What's on the horizon, though, is a throbbing interest in fuel cell from nearly every manufacturer. I see more promise in fuel cell than electric. But I think electric will really continue ramping up in the next 10 years. Perhaps there will be a crossover into a fuel cell/electric, fuel cell/clean diesel, fuel cell/cellulosic ethanol as a way to bridge the gap. Fuel cell, I feel, offers amazing sustainability for the auto industry and protects consumers' transportation lifestyle and fuel security.

It is very hard to tell where the sustainable diesel (algal diesel) or cellulosic ethanol is going -- there was amazingly no overt push at the auto show for its use.

Obviously there has to be significant downsizing in the auto industry, especially from the U.S. Big 3. Chrysler will likely not survive and may merge into one of the other Big 3 by the end of 2009; in such a scenario, the only real value in a merge would be the Jeep brand and any hybrid technology Chrysler can fork over in the merge -- other than that, I don't see much more value for Chrysler.

Ford and GM will likely survive, but they will have to significantly downsize -- which I don't think the consumer will be hurt by. They need to lose redundant brands ASAP, probably shrink to less than half their current size, and continue a focus on fuel efficiency and hybrid alternatives in order to keep up with Toyota. Any remaining brands that Ford and GM keep should be more defined by design and environmentally friendly features -- down to recyclability of the vehicle at its end of life and starting with every bolt and seat stuffing.

Honda has always been the odd man out -- they will struggle in competing with Toyota's strong hybrid offerings. However, I believe Honda's sights on fuel cell will give them the advantage in the long term -- and the company will publicly state this is the way they want to go, which is why they are letting Toyota have its 15 minutes of fame right now.

Bye, bye Nissan and Kia -- it's hard to tell how much longer they can go without serious development and marketing of alternative fuel vehicles. Certainly the long-term view is not very strong, except for Kia's concept fuel cell vehicle.

I left the show wishing there was some vehicle that would really "wow" me with some type of hybrid technology. Not really.

So, for the next five years I believe that unless you are buying a luxury or ultra-luxury vehicle, the "pretty" factor will become less of an interest for the general buying public. Though, which has been proven by celebs stocking up on Priuses, even the elite find eliteness in buying an average brand with the "Hybrid" nameplate on it. Most of us are wanting to be wow'd by environmental prowess, superior fuel efficiency (above 50 mpg), new technology into hybrid and fuel cell vehicles that are within an average-person cost range, practical advances in alternative fuel distribution (i.e., for fuel cell, what it will really cost to plug in an electric vehicle), zero emissions, and overall safety assurances. If you can give us a unique yet functional design (a la Prius) on top of that, then that gives it some "cool" factor as well -- until the day when all vehicles are hybrid of some sort, which means we'll swing back to newer designs being a focus again.

If you are in the market for a new car, your budget will dictate what you can buy. If you can afford at least $25,000, then go for a hybrid. Otherwise, go to http://www.fueleconomy.gov/ and find the most fuel efficient car you can that also gets good reviews -- such as on http://www.edmunds.com/. And you can also find out which vehicles are offering tax credits at http://www.fueleconomy.gov/.

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