Green Thumbs: Thumbs Up and Down for Detroit's Green Cars

Green Thumbs Diesels

What has been an auto-show trend for some time all but ran away with Detroit's North American International Auto Show this year, and the trend will undoubtedly continue in Chicago and New York in the coming months. American and foreign manufacturers painted the town green with talk of their current fuel misers, future alternatives and no small amount of wishful thinking. To separate the truly green from the merely envious, I ran around the show floor in two videos — one to the left and one below — in which I rated many of the concept and production offerings with green thumb up or green thumb down. To fill in some of the gaps, I've expanded the ratings below. To be clear, I only address cars and technologies introduced at the Detroit show, and I make no claim of comprehensiveness. And, as if you couldn't tell, there is nothing scientific or sophisticated about this examination.

Green Thumbs Hybrids

GREEN THUMBS UP

Mercedes-Benz GLK Freeside: Technically a concept, this model will be mass-produced, possibly by the year's end. I know, I know — how can an SUV be green? The main reason is its size. Environmentalists who think SUV owners will suddenly trade in their trucks for econocars or small hybrids are fooling themselves. We're more likely to convince SUV owners to buy smaller SUVs, which is better than nothing. Sized to compete with the BMW X3, the GLK is smaller than Mercedes' other SUVs. The show cars also were equipped with Bluetec clean-diesel engines. Diesel engines are inherently about 30% more efficient than a comparable gas engine, and that means less CO2 is produced.

2009 Saturn Vue Green Line 2 Mode Hybrid:
Saturn already has a hybrid version of its compact Vue SUV, which is a mild hybrid with mild mileage improvements. The 2 Mode system is the difference here, and it's good for a 50% improvement in fuel economy over the V-6 Vue, Saturn says. Unfortunately, the V-6 version is notoriously inefficient to begin with. I'd rather see the technology deliver more modest acceleration (it's comparable to the V-6, not the four-cylinder) and better final mileage, but 50% is nothing to cough at. Certified EPA figures haven't been given yet, but 50% would turn the Vue XR FWD's 19 mpg combined rating to almost 29 mpg. In 2010, a plug-in version is promised to raise the stakes even higher.

Ford Escape plug-in hybrid:
Sitting inconspicuously at the Ford display was a plug-in version of the Escape Hybrid SUV. Ford made no announcement, but it turned out to be a functional prototype that a representative suggested could be ready to market before we see anything from one of the brands that’s already talking loudly about selling a plug-in. Green thumbs up for taking the initiative — and not crowing about it years before delivery.

Saab 9-4X BioPower concept: Though it's a concept car, the handsome Saab 9-4X would be a good addition to the Saab lineup — and a more appropriate one than the adapted Chevy TrailBlazer known as the 9-7X. The 9-4X runs on E85 ethanol. Ethanol isn't as good an alternative as you may have been led to believe, but with some advances it ultimately can be cheap in terms of both fuel prices and the flex-fuel vehicles that use it. The BioPower gets a thumbs up because, unlike current flex-fuel cars, it's designed to exploit ethanol's advantages, mainly high octane. The use of a turbo makes it possible to get higher power than you would from a normal flex-fuel car — without losing the option to burn straight gas.

Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder:
Is the Lamborghini's 5.0-liter V-10 engine a fuel miser? Of course not! It gets green thumbs up because it's the kind of car sold in relatively small numbers in the U.S., and it can't be driven in all climates or circumstances. Cars like this get a bad rap whenever the conservation issue is raised. Perspective, people. We need to lighten up on the sports cars and be concerned about the millions of truck-based SUVs we've driven for decades. Cars like this one are a drop in the ocean.

Fisker Karma: This outrageous soon-to-be production car is a gas/electric hybrid. That alone wouldn't earn it the green thumb, seeing as it's likely to be as low-volume as other exclusive sports cars. No, I give it the thumbs up because it's a series hybrid, like the Volt, and could come even sooner than that car, if Henrik Fisker has his way. I'm a series-hybrid booster, and I'm pleased to learn this is an American company whose manufacturing is likely to be domestic, too.

Saturn Flextreme concept:
The Flextreme is too far-out to take seriously as a future car, but it boasts a version of the E-Flex drivetrain first shown last year in the Chevy Volt. A series hybrid rather than the current parallel type, E-Flex is a simpler system. Basically you have a plug-in electric car with a battery and an onboard generator; if the battery runs down, just fire up the generator and keep going. Thumbs up because this one has a diesel-powered generator in place of the Volt's gas version. This flexibility will let buyers choose a version compatible with the fuel that's most affordable in their region.

BMW 335d and Volkswagen Passat CC TDI:
These cars are powered by clean-diesel engines and will hit our market this year. The engines are similar to Mercedes' in that they use new filters, catalytic converters and a tank of urea solution that's injected into the exhaust to assist in turning the pollution into benign gases. They're clean enough to be sold in all 50 states. BluePerformance is what BMW calls the urea, because, let's face it: Urea is an unpleasant word. Volkswagen and Mercedes both call it AdBlue. Any vehicle that helps educate Americans about how sophisticated diesels are — especially cars and luxury brands — gets the green thumbs up.

X5 xDrive35d and Audi Q7 3.0 TDI: These two SUVs, due in 2008 or just into 2009, employ the engine types described in the cars above. Audi, which is Volkswagen's luxury brand, shares the TDI designation. VW expects to have more diesel cars than any brand in the next year, including small models like the Jetta that are designed for efficiency. Luxury brands sometimes emphasize power.

Audi R8 V12 TDI concept: This is a diesel version of Audi's new R8 supercar. While you weren't watching, a diesel engine similar to this one in Audi's R10 racecar won the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race twice. Why a green thumbs up? Because it's bound to teach Americans a very important lesson: Diesels can be quick, and they shouldn't be feared. They aren’t noisy, smelly or smoky anymore. The more consumers recognize that, the better diesel's chances are in the U.S.

Mitsubishi RA concept:
Same story as the Audi R8. Anything that equates diesel with quick gets the nod. Or the thumb, as it were.

Toyota A-BAT concept: I like this concept in general because there are no good truly compact pickup trucks anymore, and people who want to downsize from their less-efficient pickups need somewhere to go. It's also a hybrid truck — from a company that we know could make one, if it isn’t well on its way already.

BMW X6 ActiveHybrid:
BMW introduced the X6 — something of a low-riding wagonlike crossover — and accompanied it with a hybrid version, the X6 ActiveHybrid. It looks like this one will be as much about power as efficiency, but it's BMW's first hybrid, using technology co-developed with GM and Mercedes. The more the merrier.

Honda/Acura i-DTEC clean-diesel engine: Honda showed a clean-diesel engine that's expected to debut in 2009 in a yet-to-be-named Acura model. It's special because Honda says it can run clean enough to be 50-state legal without the use of a urea additive. Technically, an engine alone shouldn't get a thumb, but this one would relieve you from ever saying the word urea again, and that's worth at least one thumb.

GREEN THUMBS DOWN

Cadillac Provoq concept: I like the concept itself as a possible replacement for the SRX crossover. I like the louvers in the grille that close it off to improve aerodynamics when cooling air isn't needed. I like the fact that it employs GM's E-Flex drivetrain, which earned a thumbs up in the Saturn Flextreme above. This one gets a green thumbs down, though, because in place of the generators previously shown is a hydrogen fuel cell that can recharge a depleted battery. I love the fuel cell idea, but the more I learn, the more dubious I am of its viability. One of the reasons I like E-Flex is that it doesn't rely on a fuel cell, so if it's a bust, we'll have other options.

Chrysler ecoVoyager, Dodge Zeo and Jeep Renegade concepts: All three of these are electric cars. The Chrysler is claimed to be a series hybrid with a fuel-cell backup, the Dodge is all battery-electric and the Jeep is a series hybrid with diesel-generator backup. Manufacturers get a lot of wiggle room from us when they say what powers a concept, because often nothing powers them. But two of these three concepts ape GM's E-Flex series hybrids — technology that the Chrysler group has no claim to. Suggesting you have a technology that you don't is easy. So is saying green thumbs down, three times.

Honda CR-Z concept: The CR-Z concept is a two-seat hybrid from a company that we know can actually build a hybrid. That's good, but it gets a thumbs down because it's not what the world needs from Honda. Honda acknowledges it misjudged the market when it made a Civic Hybrid rather than a more affordable hybrid to compete with the Toyota Prius, and it’s working on it. This model isn't it, and nothing's likely to become of it.

Kia Borrego diesel: Along with the Borrego rollout, Kia announced that it would have a urea-injected clean diesel powering the thing, probably by 2010. I know I said clean diesels are good, but this one — aside from not being here yet — is tied to an all-new midsize truck-based SUV. When body-on-frame SUVs are giving up sales to more efficient car-based "crossover" types, there's nothing green about an all-new truck model. Overall, thumbs down.

Comments 

Dan

"To separate the truly green from the merely envious..."
Oh man Joe, that's good writing! :) (honestly, not sarcastic) Man, I love this site!

Your standards are tragically low, but I appreciate any compliment anytime from anyone.

Greg

I absolutely concur with your "thumbs up" pronouncement for most of the upcoming, clean-diesel machines headed for our shores.

One point, however, needs correction: BMW will also call for Adblue solution to go in their SCR-type diesels for America. BluePerformance is the competing BMW brand for their diesel machines that meet emission compliance for all fifty states as compared to MB's BlueTec; not the name of their brand of solution. Both will use AdBlue. VW/Audi will call their machines TDI, but will also use AdBlue. BMW separated from MB and VW but VW will also not use the name BlueTec; only MB. In Europe, VW has used the name BlueMotion, but only TDI is set to be used for the upcoming diesels from Audi and VW. (source: www.dieselforum.org).

The way I count it up, all fifty states will have a choice of around sixteen diesel-powered cars, trucks, and SUVs under 8600 gross vehicle weight rating by 2009. By 2011, we should have around thirty-three choices at a minimum. By contrast, we now have a choice of three different MB SUVs (CDIs); a mid-size MB sedan (BlueTec); and a Jeep Grand Cherokee (CRD), and all are only forty-five state emission certified. All five of those vehicles have the same engine.

Some examples of diesels to come: Ford F150, Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra, Hummer 2, Nissan Maxima, Honda Accord i-DTEC, Acura TSX, Acura TL, Acura MDX, Dodge Ram, Cadillac CTS, Saturn Aura, Kia Borrego, Hyundai Veracruz, Volkswagen Jetta TDI, Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI, Volkswagen Tiguan TDI, Volkswagen Tourareg TDI, Volkswagen Passat TDI, Audi Q7 TDI (with a V-6), Audi Q7 (with a V-12), Audi Q3, Mercedes-Benz GL320 BlueTec, MB ML320 BlueTec, MB R320 BlueTec, MB E320 BlueTec, MB S300 BlueTec Hybrid, BMW X-5 X-Drive, BMW 335d, Honda Accord i-DTEC, Honda Ridgeline (V-6), Honda Pilot (V-6), Honda Odyssey (V-6), Mitsubishi Lancer, Land Rover, Nissan Titan, and Toyota Tundra.

One point missed with the clean diesels: all diesels, new and old, regardless of what OEMs might say, can use any blend of biodiesel and/or renewable diesel fuels with absolutely no modification and only a few precautions with nearly no penalty in fuel economy as is seen with gas-power substitute fuels, like ethanol and propane. Taken together, diesels capture a hybrid-like fuel economy premium over regular, gas-powered cars and have the added benefit of being renewable fuel capable without sacrifices.

Sean

As a prospective CR-Z buyer, and a current Honda Insight driver, I take issue with your characterization of the CR-Z as a thumbs down. My understanding is the Prius-fighter is coming, the Civic Hybrid will remain, and the CR-Z is simply a 3rd hybrid model to flesh out the line. And from what I've read, Honda has committed to producing the two hybrid-specific designs. Not to mention that the photos make the car look like a 2+2, not the slightly less practical 2 seater that you mention.

I came too late for the CRX, and when my Integra bit the dust I found my Insight for a song. I love the mileage, it's not horribly impractical (I could stuff my 7 foot christmas tree in the back and still fully close the hatch), and it surprised me with its servicable driving dynamics. But it's not the Integra in handling or performance, and I'm a bit bummed about that. I bet there's a decent market for an RSX replacement, and if they can meet that niche and toss in great mileage as a bonus, I think they have a winner on their hands.

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