NEW YORK CITY -- The New York International Auto Show really is international, and not just the cars. You hear every possible language spoken, and definitely more Chinese than ever before. I’m just starting to decompress after two days of press events at the extravaganza, which opens to the public on Friday (yes, Earth Day).
Perhaps the opening day is appropriate, because like just about every show I’ve been to in the past three years, this one was very green. But the shade of green is changing, and in a good way. Today’s eco-cars aren’t show or niche vehicles, they’re the companies’ major product lines. They’re not headed for the market in some undefined tomorrow, but here today. I got to as much of it as I could, and here are some highlights:
The Malibu returns: The Malibu, a venerable name at GM that goes back to the 1960s, was Chevrolet’s phoenix car in 2008. The hybrid version was ill-thought-out and tanked, but the Malibu was a car that stood out from what was then a ho-hum indifferent product line. Now the Malibu is back as a world car, and I’m amazed to discover that GM took my advice and rolled out an Eco edition (38 mpg on the highway) comparable to the intriguing Cruze Eco. The technology is interesting: a mild hybrid system that, one hopes, is better than the weak approach in the earlier Malibu hybrid.
Hail the conquering Taurus:
Like the Malibu, the Taurus was a sign of rebirth for Ford in the 1980s. And when the company abandoned it in favor of the generic 500, it was a sign that all was not well in Ford-Land. But the Taurus returned, and the new model on display in New York both looks good and gets green. There are two different versions with EcoBoost four-cylinder engines, achieving (in the better of the two) 31 highway mpg.
The Honda family: The Civic has always been a willing performer, but it hasn’t had a starring role at Honda until now. In New York, the automaker rolled out no less than three green Civics, including a new version of the hybrid model that achieves 44 mpg on the highway -- and in the city, too. The Civic Hybrid needs to assert itself and grab some market share from the Prius, and maybe this is the iteration to do it. There’s also at long last a revamped version of the natural gas Civic and, most intriguing to me, a new HF model (41 mpg on the highway) that achieves that stellar figure without hybrid drive. The Civic has had several moments in the sun, and another one may be coming.
The brawnier Beetle:
Volkswagen finally unveiled the replacement for the New Beetle, and it's mucho macho. Well, as masculine as any Beetle is likely to be. Some 60 percent of the current model is sold to women, and VW wants men to like them, too. Fuel economy is indeed pretty good, if performance-oriented men care about that kind of thing.
There were, of course, a ton of glamorous concept cars. Saab, on life support at the show
, exhibited a hybrid sports PhoeniX with four-wheel-drive -- and electric drive on the rear wheels only. VW brought in the gorgeous Bulli, a Microbus for our times, and in the concept version with an electric motor no less. Somewhat out of context, Mini brought in the original KISS with four band-personalized vehicles (below) to be auctioned off for charity. The Prius c is a concept in name only, because this smaller and even more fuel-efficient variant is going into production.
Notice that I didn’t say much about hybrids, and there’s a reason for that -- there weren’t many of them. We’d seen the Hyundai Sonata hybrid before, and the Civic was just one more member of the family. The clear trend at this show is toward green cars that go the extra mile with regular old internal-combustion engines. And that’s fine, because mpg is mpg -- there’s no special green price for hybrid drive. However they get to 40 mpg, I like it.