DETROIT—Yes, gasoline is a bit over $2 a gallon in many places, but that hasn’t stopped automakers from plugging in. At this week’s North American International Auto Show, there were no less than three plug-in hybrid introductions — well, four, if you count the Chinese company GAC’s WitStar. We’ll get to that one.
The day started with the introduction of the 2016 Chevrolet Volt. Alan Batey, president of GM North America, said the company “has been aggressive in the electrification of the automobile,” and no one’s likely to contradict him. The gas-electric Volt was a novelty when it was launched in 2010 as the first plug-in hybrid on the market. Since then, it has racked up 650 million EV miles, saving 34 million gallons of gas. Volts drive on their batteries 80 percent of the time.
The 2016 Chevy Volt gets mobbed by the press in Detroit. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The new, more aerodynamic Volt addresses the quibbles of a committed owner base. They wanted a three-place back seat, and got it (though the middle passenger will feel cheated), more electric range and an easier-to-use dashboard. The car now travels 50 miles on its 18.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack (from 38), offers 420 miles of range (from 300), and operates on pump regular. The new 1.5-liter four offers 101 horsepower, and 41 mpg instead of 37. Weight is down about 200 pounds.
Andrew Farah, the Volt’s chief engineer, said the new LG Chem battery cells offer 20 percent better cell density by volume, which really helped packaging. A better Volt might extend its sales appeal beyond a few selected states and the base in California, where (thanks to HOV access, subsidies, good weather and other factors) an incredible 45 percent of them are now sold. Expect the 2016 Volt mid-year.
It’s not clear when (or if) we’ll see the Bolt, the other plug-in car that Chevrolet showed. The all-electric offers, at least in theory, 200 miles of electric cruising at a price of $30,000 (after federal incentives), but it’s a proof-of-concept without clear production intent as of yet.
Checking out the snazzy interior on the VW Cross Coupè GTE. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Similarly tentative was the Volkswagen Cross Coupè GTE plug-in hybrid, also a concept car, but one that may well be built. It points to the likely styling of the midsized SUV for the American market that VW will start building in Chattanooga next year. That seven-seat car is to be loosely based on the VW CrossBlue concept unveiled in Detroit in 2013, but it will probably look more like the relatively curvaceous (and four-seat) Cross Coupè.
VW sold 10.1 million cars worldwide in 2014, according to management board Chairman Martin Winterkorn, but $2 a gallon gas caught the automaker with a light SUV inventory. VW is now making up for that.
The Cross Coupè is powered by a 3.6-liter V-6 paired to two electric motors, for the front and rear axles. The system produces a total of 355 horsepower, and that means a zero to 60 time of six seconds (and a 130-mph top speed).
With a 14.1 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, the new VW can travel 20 miles on a charge. An included “GTE” button maximizes the power output for spirited driving.
The Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrid is coming mid-year, but only in California and ZEV states. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The third plug-in hybrid is from Hyundai, and it’s a first from the company that already had a hybrid (the Sonata), a fuel-cell car (the Tucson) and (through sister company Kia) a battery EV (the Soul EV).
According to Eui-sun Chung, vice chairman of Hyundai, the company was the first to bring a fuel-cell car to market, and by also offering electric cars it’s giving its customers a choice of powertrains. Thus a new plug-in hybrid version of the Sonata, with a two-liter, four-cylinder direct injection engine, and a 9.8 kilowatt-hour battery offering 22 miles on electric and 93 MPGe estimated. Charging takes about three hours on 240 volts; there’s no fast-charging option (and probably not one needed). Buyers will qualify for a $4,919 federal tax credit, but pricing is coming later.
Hyundai’s John Shon told me that the Sonata is a blended hybrid, with gas power always in reserve if you need it. The driver can prioritize battery power, but not make it exclusive. “The plug-in hybrid is for people who want to make that next step,” Shon said. The car will initially be available only in California and in the Northeastern states that follow the zero-emission mandates, with other markets added if they show interest.
What's that in the back seat of the WitStar? (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The fourth plug-in hybrid was a decidedly odd entry from China’s GAC, hardly a household name at the Detroit Auto Show. The Chinese automaker fielded something called WitStar, a concept SUV with a lot of attitude. The gullwing doors covered the whole sides of the cars, and they opened up on seats with what looked like neon inserts, and a fish tank between the rear seats. I’m not kidding about the fish tank, but the fish, though mobile, appeared to be made of plastic.
GAC's WitStar, before the gullwing door got stuck. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The WitStar is said to have a top speed of 100 mph, and a not-inconsiderable EV range of 60 miles. It’s a green car, but unfortunately not one that’s ever likely to see the road. A demonstration of the gullwing doors went awry when they got stuck in the down position.
GAC has no current U.S. plans. “Maybe in the future in the U.S.,” a spokesman said. “Maybe, maybe.”
The new and spectacular Acura NSX is a hybrid with no less than three electric motors. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
I should also say that there were some spectacular regular hybrids in Detroit, too, especially the Acura NSX supercar (with no less than three electric motors). Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld are reportedly competing to see who gets the first one. Here's video on the new Volt:
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