NEW YORK—It makes me feel good that I actually own the 2016 “World Car of the Year.” The “World Design of the Year,” too. The winner of both is the Mazda Miata, which pretty much hit a home run when it was introduced last year. Mine’s a 1999, but still.
The New York International Auto Show was great fun this year, with carmakers balancing the cars people want to buy (SUVs) with those that are actually good for them (electrics and hybrids). Both were in evidence.
Opening the show at the press breakfast, Nissan/Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn was decidedly bullish on 2016 sales, and implied that analysts are being too cautious in their predictions. "It's a strong year for Nissan and the industry," he said, adding that electric cars may be in a lull now, but are sure to take off as U.S. regulations are more deeply felt. China has at least temporarily overtaken the U.S. as the No. 1 market for plug-ins, he said. Last year he said 300,000 were sold globally, which Ghosn said was "not as much as expected, but a healthy start."
I’m glad to see that the U.S. is finally getting the Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid (PHEV), which has been a hit on the European (especially) and Japanese markets. It’s the best-selling PHEV in Europe, an icon in Holland and Norway.
Mitsubishi needs a hit in the U.S., and this could be it, since the Outlander was impressive up close. The company went all out, using actors to simulate a showroom conversation between a young couple and a know-it-all Columbia professor (a man of equations, whose data proved the car’s worth). We all got plug-in T-shirts, and the chairs we sat in were mailed to us (really!).
Don Swearingen, a Mitsubishi vice president, acknowledged that the company has had “a fair share of challenges” in the U.S. market, but he’s hoping cars like the Outlander plug-in (available in the fall) and the Mirage (now with a G4 variant) will change that. There’s not a lot of detail on the U.S.-spec Outlander PHEV, but it has a two-liter gas engine and twin electric motors that combine for what the company calls Super All-Wheel Control.
There’s a 12-kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack, and three drive modes — battery electric, series hybrid (with a the gas engine acting like a generator to recharge the batteries) — and parallel hybrid (with both the gas engine and electric assist). EV is for “short trips,” the actual range wasn’t disclosed.
That's a copy of a movie prop. The real Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was an aero-engined race car. But not so cuddly. This replicar was built by a retired New York police detective who doubles as a Beatles impersonator. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
I had a fun time with the "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" replica on view. To set the record straight, it’s a copy not of the aero-engined British racer Ian Fleming used as the basis for his kids’ book, but the movie prop. A retired New York police detective (who doubles as John in a Beatles cover band) spent five years building it from the wreck of a 1914 Overland.
My daughter actually rode in the original Chitty, now in a New England collection, but that’s another story.
Mazda, waving its trophies from the World Car awards, presented its RF, a retractable hardtop version of the Miata. It’s very cool; top down, it resembles a t-top car. Mazda’s new U.S. president and CEO, Masahiro Moro, said the company’s small size “allows us to be more nimble.” He described the RF: “It’s as pure as the car on which it is based, but a little more sophisticated, a little more grown up.”
Honda was all about variants, too, showing a new hatchback version of the Civic. Hatches have been on the outs with the American car-buying public, but they’re making a comeback. The new car will be available this fall. That was about it from Honda in New York, unless you wanted to look at the car signed by pop star Demi Lovato.
Other highlights here in New York included a trio of green cars from new Hyundai brand Ioniq — in hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery electric form. It’s a bold step from the Korean automaker, which is also spinning off a new luxury Genesis division. The latter was represented by the New York Concept, definitely the best-looking design study at the show. A hybrid diesel drivetrain is under the hood, but remember it’s just a concept.
And let me add words of encouragement for Toyota’s new Prime, a plug-in hybrid version of the Prius. With an 8.8-kilowatt-hour battery pack the car has 22 miles of electric range, a big step up from the original Prius plug-in. It’s rated at 120 MPGe (a 26 percent jump), and will be offered with a big range of connectivity options.
According to Toyota Group Vice President Bill Fay, “Over 50 percent of Americans can get to work and back home without using a drop of gas, and for those who can charge at work, that number jumps to 80 percent. And for those with longer commutes, they can rely on the most fuel efficient hybrid system in the industry.”
Will that type of enticement get Americans out of SUVs and into small cars again? We’ll see, won’t we? Please price it competitively. Here's more on the Civic on video: