The BIG News from Detroit

The new Honda Fit is an affordable, efficient entry.

I am none too impressed by the new cars and dream vehicles on display at this year’s Detroit Auto Show. American carmakers don’t seem to be grasping that $3 a gallon gasoline will force a sea change in consumer thinking. Once again, the most innovative small cars and ready-to-go green vehicles were from Japan.

Ford came up with a version of the F-250 truck, the Super Chief, which is tri-flex on fuel: It can run on hydrogen, E85 ethanol or gasoline. But, of course, it’s also a huge V-10-powered truck with only a 12 percent improvement in fuel economy. Wouldn’t the concept have worked better on a smaller platform? Although carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are down a commendable 99 percent, this big bruiser gets 12 miles per gallon with gasoline, and only 13 with hydrogen. On E85, it gets a ridiculous 8.6 mpg. Just asking, Ford.

I have the same problem with the new 2008 full hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Denali, which were developed with input from BMW and DaimlerChrysler and made their debuts in Detroit. Yes, it’s an achievement that Detroit is rolling out full hybrids, with these trucks complementing the Ford Escape Hybrid. GM says they’ll have amazing fuel economy, considering the platform they’re on, but these are giant 300-horsepower vehicles and the improvements will be incremental. I have higher hopes for the new “Green Line” Saturn Vue, a “mild” hybrid with a belt alternator system that should enable an auto-stop feature. Expect a little better than 30 mpg on the highway.

The Ford Reflex is more like it, a small car with the upsweeping gullwing doors that often make it onto show concepts (but rarely on production vehicles). Still, the Reflex has some great ideas, including an advanced diesel-electric hybrid engine with lithium-ion batteries that could in concept provide 65 mpg. I say “in concept” because the show car didn’t actually have a drivetrain. But the headlights are powered by a solar panel! The insulation comes from recycled Nike sneakers! I’d love to love the Reflex, but I’d want to see it in dealer showrooms, not revolving on a show stand.

The retro concept is cool, but Detroit is starting to take it a bit far. Do we really need a retooled 475-horsepower Shelby GT 500 Mustang for 2007? Or a 6.1-liter Hemi-powered Dodge Challenger that shouts out 1970? As I recall, gasoline cost 30 cents a gallon back then.

Taking the cake in the hideously ugly category was the all-new Chrysler Imperial concept, which looked like a collision between a Rolls Royce and a Maybach limousine. The inspiration for the Imperial was the classic Chryslers of the 1930s, but as I recall there was a Depression on then and few could afford such excess. I’m not sure Americans will be able to take the pain at the pumps necessary to keep this Hemi V-8-powered beast fueled up. Also plug-ugly was the new Mercedes GL 450, a huge diesel-powered seven-seat SUV. Of course, I’m very excited about the new colors available for the Hummer H3.

Also at the show was some really appropriate transportation for our times, the $260,000 V-12 Aston-Martin Rapide. But it was a mere trifle compared to the Bugatti Veyron EB 16.4. For a mere $1.2 million, luxury buyers can enjoy 254 mph. This 16-cylinder homage to flaunting it accelerates “like a stuck pig on diet pills,” says Automobile magazine. But maybe if Volkswagen stuck to its core strength—making great economy cars—it would be doing better in the marketplace. When VW sold Beetles, it didn’t make supercars on the side.

You won’t see it on the cover of performance car magazines, but Chevrolet quietly debuted its 2007 Aveo in Detroit. Aveos have actually been selling very well since fuel prices starting climbing. It would be great if Chevy could make its sub-$10,000 sedan in the good old U.S.A., but it’s actually a rebadged Daewoo from Korea. Still, it looks credible, if not particularly stylish. (Think 10-year-old Toyota Corolla.)

To me, the car of the show was, drum roll please
the 2007 Honda Fit. Although it’s unlikely to draw the crowds, the unassuming Fit is a five-door subcompact hatch that will slot neatly beneath the increasingly expensive (but still benchmark) Civic. The Fit goes on sale in April, priced around $13,000 to $14,000.

The Fit is like a lot of the cars you see on the road in Europe, very space conscious. It’s only 157.4 inches long but offers 90.1 cubic feet of interior room. Honda thinks it can sell 50,000 Fits per year in the U.S., and I think that’s realistic. My question remains, wouldn’t consumers like to see something like this from America’s automakers? Do we really need retread Challengers and Shelby Mustangs to remind Detroit of its past glories?

The concept Ford Reflex is a small car that dreams big: too bad it isn’t for sale yet.

And speaking of smart cars from Honda, I’ve been driving the new Civic Hybrid this week. The whole Civic model line has taken a giant step forward in terms of styling, and the Civic Hybrid now competes with the Prius in aerodynamics and presence. It’s also safer, with standard side-curtain airbags and antilock brakes.

The combination of a 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine, an electric motor and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) are good for 49 mpg in the city and 51 on the highway, though those figures will probably be revised downward as the EPA reforms its method of determining window sticker mileage. (Then again, every other car will lose mpg, too.)

You won’t be winning any stoplight derbies with 110 horsepower on tap—acceleration is fairly leisurely, especially up steep hills—but there’s 17 horsepower more than in the 2005 Civic Hybrid. Torque is up as well. Like all hybrids on the market, the Civic shuts off at traffic lights, then restarts with hardly a murmur when your foot comes off the brake. Emissions (AT-PZEV in California) are barely visible on the federal chart.

The interior of this new Civic Hybrid is a nice place to be, with comfortable cloth seats and good space to stretch out. The trunk is quite large. The automatic climate control includes an air filtration system, though when the fan’s blowing the “auto stop” function is disabled. Steering wheel controls make things easier, though the toggles are pretty small.

The Civic Hybrid with Navigation is a separate model, so our loaded test car (with power locks, a 160-watt stereo (that reads MP3 CDs and digital audio cards), airbags all around and ABS, had no options at $23,900. The base car is $22,400, and it compares to an entry-level Civic DX (30/38 mpg) for $15,910. So, indeed, you will have to fill up your Hybrid a whole lot of times before you make up the price differential.

But wait, there’s more to this deal than meets the eye. Since January 1, a new federal tax credit, part of the recently enacted (and rather dire) energy bill, has been in place for hybrid cars. In fact, the tax credit replaces the tax deduction that was in place in earlier years, and that could mean more savings for you. As the Alliance to Save Energy describes it, “A tax credit reduces the tax you pay, dollar-for-dollar. Tax deductions—such as those for home mortgages and charitable giving, for example—lower your taxable income. If you are in the highest 30 percent tax bracket, your income tax is reduced by 30 percent of the value of a tax deduction. But a tax credit reduces your federal

income tax by 100 percent of the amount of the credit.”

Since the tax benefit is based in part on fuel economy, the Civic Hybrid should qualify for a $2,100 credit. (The Prius, with a better bottom line at the pumps, is eligible for $3,150, near the maximum.) You have to be the original owner, so no transfer benefits apply.

In addition, state laws also help the hybrid customer. In Connecticut, for example, people who buy a hybrid that gets at least 40 mpg between now and October 1, 2008 are exempt from state sales tax. Colorado offers a $4,700 tax credit, and California has parking benefits and free passes for HOV lanes. Pennsylvania is relatively chintzy, with a $500 rebate on the purchase price. But, oh wow, look at Massachusetts: The total value of your deal includes a $2,000 state income tax deduction; a waiver of the initial $27.50 application fee for the Fast Lane Transponder; the right to travel in HOV lanes regardless of passengers; and discounts or free parking in participating towns and cities. Hooray the Bay State!

The IRS is reportedly still working on how it will implement tax credits for hybrid-electrics, and is asking automakers to “certify” which of their models qualify. The tax agency then has 30 days to reject or accept the certification. If it does reject a certified vehicle, the people who have already claimed the tax credit will be able to keep it. Is that confusing enough? Fortunately, it doesn’t confuse me as much as Detroit’s insistence on building gas guzzlers in the face of a building fuel crisis.


North American International Auto Show

Alliance to Save Energy Tax Credit Page