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

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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.

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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.


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.

Photo of Joe Wiesenfelder
Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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