NEW YORK CITY—One of the biggest debuts here at the New York International Auto Show was actually one of its smallest cars, the Mercedes’ Smart.

The all-new Smart Car uses a turbo three-cylinder.

The all-new Smart Car uses a turbo three-cylinder. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

I was there when the Smart was unveiled at a Mercedes party just prior to the show. A lot rides on getting it right, and the new car boasts a bright new interior with cloth accents on the seats, doors and dashboard, stylishly retro controls, and a three-cylinder turbocharged engine connected to either a five-speed manual or a six-speed double-clutch automatic transmission. Here's the Smart on video:

Power is up to 89 horsepower, with 100 pound feet of torque. We don’t know what that means in terms of drivability and fuel economy yet. Dr. Annette Winkler, who heads Smart, told me that an updated electric version will be on the road next year. She drove the car out, turning it around in front of the assembled press to emphasize its tight turning radius.

There was LOTS of high-tech luxury at the show. This Cadillac CT6 typifies the new brawn at the high end of the market.

There was LOTS of high-tech luxury at the show. This Cadillac CT6 typifies the new brawn at the high end of the market. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

This auto show came amidst a rising economy and low gas prices, so it wasn’t surprising that compact SUVs dominated the new model introductions, and the talk at the show. “One in three new vehicles sold in the U.S. is an SUV, and we see that as a trend that’s accelerating, not diminishing,” said Dave Zuchowski, CEO of Hyundai. “It’s reshaping the dialogue and it’s affecting our business.” The response: an all-new Tucson, one of three SUV lines for the company.

There was, of course, plenty of interesting green technology. And despite all the SUVs, few had V-8s under their hoods, and lightweighting with aluminum and high-strength steel is all over the industry these days. Zuchowski, for instance, pointed out that the Tucson comes in a hydrogen fuel-cell version. “Once fuel prices return to historic levels,” he said, “we’ll be uniquely positioned. Today’s prices are not sustainable.”

The 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid: expect a big seller.

The 2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid: expect a big seller. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Toyota caught a wave with its timing on the RAV4 Hybrid, which combines great fuel economy with the compact crossover segment. I predict boatloads of sales of this new model. There’s a 2.5-liter engine, and separate motors on the front and rear axles producing all-wheel drive.

Tomorrow's mileage champ: The more aggressive new Honda Civic concept.

Tomorrow's mileage champ: The more aggressive new Honda Civic concept. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

No details on fuel economy yet, but don’t expect the hybrid RAV4 to quite reach Prius territory. It’s also our first look at new styling for the RAV4, and on first glance it appears to absorb some of the design DNA of the Mirai fuel-cell car.

Also likely to turn a whole new generation on to fuel economy is the next generation of the Honda Civic, shown in a design concept. It's not grandma's Civic; this one looked decidedly sporty, though fuel misers will have multiple power choices.


Volvo's having-it-all XC90 plug-in hybrid.

Volvo's having-it-all XC90 plug-in hybrid. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Right before the show, it was disclosed that safety leader Volvo, now with Chinese owners, will build a new factory in the U.S. (to complement two in China). “We’ve tried for many years to do this,” said spokesman Dean Shaw, “and we finally have a CEO, Hakan Samuelsson, who made it happen.” Volvo really needed a new product, and on its stand is the new XC90, which may or not be built in the U.S. It will certainly be Volvo’s most in-demand product line, and we’re intrigued by its plug-in hybrid variant. It’s a no-compromises car — 59 MPGe with three rows of seats.   

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and the new Maxima.

Carlos Ghosn and the new Maxima. He also touted a new battery for the Leaf. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, on hand to introduce the new 2016 Maxima, on sale in June, which manages to be 2.2 inches longer but also 82 pounds lighter. It’s that lightweighting again, and coupled with very slippery aerodynamics should result in improved fuel economy, too. Ghosn said a new longer-range battery is coming for the Nissan Leaf electric car, but he didn’t say how much more range or when.

Michael Horn and the pink Beetle. The license was BTL PNK.

Michael Horn and the pink Beetle. The license was BTL PNK. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

VW showed off some fun variants on the Beetle, but resisted my entreaties to finally roll out a new Microbus. “It’s always under discussion,” U.S. CEO Michael Horn told me. “But we have to study the market and get our homework done. Right now gas prices are down, as are sales of classic sedans. Compact SUVs are the market to be in. The minivan segment is not increasing.”

Still, VW might bring out some kind of electric minivan, whether Microbus branded or not. At the show, VW board member Dr. Heinz-Jakob Neusser told me the company is investigating the concept, since a battery powertrain allows lots of intriguing possibilities for maximizing usable passenger space.

The Malibu was ultra-cool in hybrid form. A slippery shape and 48 mpg in the city.

The Malibu was ultra-cool in hybrid form. A slippery shape and 48 mpg in the city. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Chevy offered a one-two punch — an all-new Malibu with 48 mpg in the city in hybrid form, and a fully refreshed Spark. Both are 2016 models. The Malibu is the result of a fresh sheet of paper, and has lines drawn by a bright light of the styling studio, young Jaymer Starbody. The new Spark shows the company listened to complaints about rear-seat torture by stretching the wheelbase several inches. I fit quite comfortably in the back now.

If you can follow the electric strategy, GM’s Katherine Sirvio told me that GM is coming out with the new 200-mile Bolt, and will also keep, at least for now, the Spark EV on the older version of the Spark platform.

I spent a little time in what amounts to the Jacob Javits Center’s basement with Paul Elio, CEO of Elio Motors. The company’s quixotic campaign to get an 84-mpg, $6,800 three-wheeled car on the road continues apace. There are 40,000 hand-wavers on this car, and my YouTube videos on the subject have attracted hundreds of thousands of views.

Paul Elio with his car: forward movement, but still money mountains.

Paul Elio with his car: forward movement, but still money mountains. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Paul Elio told me that the company is focused on getting its 0.9-liter, three-cylinder IAV engine through the testing phase. “It’s meeting expectations,” he said. Elio insisted that the company is on track to deliver the car in the first half of 2016. But that represents another delay, since last year Elio said it would hit the market in September 2015.

A major snag is money, since Elio told me he’s raised $66 million, and needs at least $200 million. A Department of Energy loan would help, but so far the feds have favored aluminum maker Alcoa instead.

Finally, for the second year in a row, a BMW i won in the green category at the World Car Awards. Last year it was the i3, this year the plug-in hybrid powerhouse i8. Are there other eco mobiles that can reach 62 mph in 4.4 seconds? Give yourself a star if you said, sure, the Tesla Model S, the Porsche 918 Spyder, the Rimac Concept One, the Renovo Coupe, and more.

Here's the Elio on video:

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.