The motor show in Detroit might be swathed in green, but have environmental credentials yet to make the effect on sales that many would lead us to believe?
Talkin' bout the revolution The motor show in Detroit
You have to wonder where this green revolution is. It has to be out there somewhere. After all, the media are reporting its growth, the tree-huggers are proselytising an uprising and the automakers are marketing environmentalism to North Americans with a fervour usually reserved for football and burgers. But actually finding said revolution? That's proving difficult.
The most recent US automobile sales numbers are in and, in top place among all light vehicles, the best-seller is, well it's no surprise, it's still the United States' perennial sales leader, the Ford F-Series. What you might find surprising is that sales of the big pickup grew by a whopping 27.7 per cent in 2010. Ditto for the Chevy Silverado with an almost-as-whopping 16.9 per cent uptick. Toyota's environment-loving Prius? Well, it's stuck way down in 15th spot on the US sales chart and sales increased but a paltry 0.9 per cent over a dismal 2009.
But, wait, the news gets worse. The Prius is the only "green" vehicle that made the list (heck, even the lowly Jeep Grand Cherokee made it, increasing its sales in the US by a humungous 68.2 per cent thanks to its recent redesign). Indeed, since the Prius entails the lion's share of hybrid sales in North America (Honda's hybrids seem so anchored to their dealers' lots that one has to wonder if their tyres are cemented right into their parking spaces), it means that hybrid sales as a percentage of total vehicles sales declined in 2010.
Yet, here on the floor of the Detroit North American International Auto Show, the "revolution" continues, seemingly unconcerned that no one outside the hallowed doors of Cobo Hall even cares. Along with an air of cautious optimism - most tellingly indicated by the more lavish spending on their exhibits - and a more obvious realization that the 'rah-rah' salesmanship of the past doesn't work in this post-recessionary environment, there's definitely a feeling that any automaker not cow-towing to the environmental lobby will be left out in the cold.
Toyota is, for instance, launching an entire line of Prius-branded products. You can't blame them; the Prius, despite its recent tepid sales growth, is the one shining success of the green revolution. But one can't help but wonder how much of its popularity rests in its actual ability to reduce emissions and how much is just the Toyota's powerful Prius - now "Prius Gone Plural" - marketing machine. After all, Camry Hybrids are rare beasts on the roads.
Meanwhile, over in the Lexus booth, the message is "the darker side of green"; only that darker side is a CT200h runabout that boasts 134 horsepower and a zero-to-100kph acceleration time that barely beats 10 seconds. And its American price tag of $29,120 (Dh107,000), it's not exactly cheap.
Though it is launching a new 6 Series convertible and a 1 Series M Coupe, BMW's show booth at Cobo Hall is fronted by a pair of ActiveHybrids (X6 and 7 Series). Meanwhile, over at the Porsche exhibit, holding centre court is the 918 RSR Hybrid. Never mind that that its flywheel-based Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) is the ideal solution for racing, there is currently no series for the car to race in. And such flywheel-based systems will never be used on the street, though Porsche has another, battery-based hybrid system in the works for production-based cars.
Then, of course, we have the true believers, like Tesla, proudly displaying CEO Elon Musk's "We will not stop until every car on the road is electric" proclamation along the walls of its exhibit. Right across the aisle, there's outsized (for a mini car at least) display of Smart's electric car and scooter program. Next door is China's BYD, with seemingly its entire booth devoted to its Green City Solution and its electric sedans, SUVs and minivans.
Meanwhile, over at the General Motors booth, the Chevrolet Volt - the EV that bills itself as "more car than electric" - holds centre court. As much as I admire the technology, one has to wonder exactly many of them GM will be able to flog at $41,000 (Dh150,580) a pop.
The key display at GM's cross-town rival, Ford is an electric Transit Van scurrying - emissions-free so it's safe to do indoors - round a tiny raised oval leading a charge of electric vehicles, plug-ins and hybrids that will see the Blue Oval's family of electric vehicles rival Toyota's burgeoning Prius family.
Meanwhile, back in reality, at least the North American version of it, 2010 marks the first time in Canadian history that trucks outsold cars - 54 per cent versus 46 - with Ford being particularly blessed with its F-150 selling more than 97,000 units last year.
It's quite a dichotomy. No matter where you look, consumers are eschewing environmentally-conscious cars in droves while manufacturers become ever more strident in marketing the greenness of their new electric vehicles. Is it because they think the North American environmental lobby so powerful that it will eventually overcome consumer resistance?
Or is it, as someone more sceptical might posit (Who? Me?), that the environmental lobby is too powerful to tell to go away. Whatever the case, what will car companies do when all the monies they are pumping into these green cars fail to generate sales? How will shareholders react to a company pumping 10 or 20 billion dollars into programs for which there are no customers?
Or as I said before, where is the green revolution?