The Fuse

Plugged In at the Detroit Auto Show

by Leslie Hayward | January 15, 2016

There’s plenty of evidence that the American love affair with the SUV is far from over. In 2015, sales of light trucks and SUVs surged to account for over half of total auto sales, which also reached new records. Sales-weighted fuel economy fell dramatically at the end of the year, from a high of almost 26 mpg down to 24.9 mpg.

But even though American motorists can’t get enough of pickups, SUVs, and crossover vehicles, automakers must still strive to meet federal efficiency goals. Accordingly, automakers have continued pushing forward with a number technologically advanced, alternative fuel offerings, as evidenced by the announcements at this week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Here in a rundown of what’s on offer.

GM’s Chevrolet Bolt

The highly anticipated Bolt has gone from rumor to reality in the past two weeks, following its official introduction at the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, but full specs have become available at this week’s Detroit Auto Show. We now know the car will have a 60 kWh battery pack—the same size as the smallest battery of that was available in the Tesla Model S, although that option has been discontinued. Of course, the Bolt’s price point is less than half of the Model S, coming it at $30,000 after federal tax rebates. The Bolt can get approximately 90 miles to charge in one hour at a DC Fast Charge station—important, because the original Chevrolet Volt was incompatible with DC Fast chargers. The LG battery costs just $145 per cell to make, and the Bolt has 200 horsepower, and 200 miles of range.

Audi H-Tron Quattro

h tron

At CES, Audi and Volkswagen were all about long range electric vehicles, with the e-tron and Budd-e concepts on display and boasting 300 and 240 miles of range, respectively. In Detroit, Audi’s focus is on the hydrogen h-tron quattro, which has the same electric vehicle architecture as the e-tron, but with a fuel cell stack and hydrogen storage tank. The h-tron has an appealing 372 miles of range, and three fuel tanks that can be replenished fully in just four minutes—if you can find a hydrogen fueling station, that is. Like the e-tron it has a solar roof, to help replenish the h-tron’s 100 kW lithium-ion battery, which enables quick acceleration to supplement the power drawn from the fuel cell. The car’s presence in Detroit, just a week after the e-tron was presented at CES, shows that VW isn’t limiting itself to plug-ins when it comes to renewing its environmental credibility.

Volkswagen Plug-in Hybrid Tiguan GTE Active Concept

Even more so than Audi, VW has a long road to travel before it regains trust in the alternative vehicle space. But the company has a goal to introduce 20 all-electric or semi-electric vehicles by 2020. With the Tiguan concept, the German automaker is seeking to appeal to the American SUV market and rehabilitate its image at the same time.

Tiguan is one of the company’s more popular brands, having posted a 42.7 percent sales gain last year. The plug-in Tiguan uses a 12- kWh lithium-ion battery and electric motor to get 20 miles of electric range before a turbocharged, direct-injection gasoline engine kicks in, which pushes total driving range to 580 miles. The concept car is also designed for off-roading for the outdoorsy environmentalist, and apparently includes gesture control, although more details are needed on how this feature works.

Chrysler Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid Minivan

The world’s first plug-in minivan, the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid offers 80 MPGe with 30 miles of all-electric range. The Pacifica is a rebrand of the storied Town and Country line, which was the original minivan, introduced in the United States some three decades ago.

As reported by Jalopnik, “Chrysler is the worst about building hybrid or electric vehicles and this has led to them buying emissions credits from Tesla, Honda, and Toyota. That means every year they have to write a check to their competition.” The Pacifica plug-in is an attempt to correct that, even though the company’s sales have been extremely high. Still, Chrysler has one of the least efficient fleets in the industry, with a corporate average fuel economy of only 22 miles per gallon.

Overall, the minivan market is down in 2015, so it will be interesting to see how Chrysler’s offering fares in the current environment where customers are gravitating towards crossover vehicles and SUVs for family needs.

In 2014, the combined Town & Country and Caravan sales added up to 272,000 vehicles. If Chrysler could repeat that with a vehicle that gets 80 MPGe in the city, that’s a huge win for them as they try to achieve increasingly stringent fuel economy standards.

Ford Fusion-Energi Sedan

Ford’s popular Fusion line includes a range of vehicles, including a base model, V6 Sport, Platinum model, conventional hybrid, and its plug-in version, known as the Energi. The 2017 Fusion Energi will have 19 miles of electric range. The biggest change from last year’s model to this year’s is the exterior styling, although Ford has announced that the company is spending $4.5 billion to build 13 hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or fully electric vehicles by 2020.

Lexus and Toyota Fuel Cell Concepts


Still a concept, even though it’s been kicking around at auto shows since 2012, Lexus’s LF-FC is the first hydrogen fuel cell luxury sedan. Having all but abandoned its plug-in offerings, Toyota/Lexus have made clear their commitment to hydrogen as the company’s alternative fuel of choice. Lexus reports that the car’s high-output fuel cell stack pushes power to the front and rear wheels, making the vehicle all-wheel drive. Meanwhile, Toyotas FCV Plus Concept is an ultra-futuristic driving pod that is designed not just as a vehicle, but a mobile power source for communities.

Of course, there’s plenty of fodder on the opposite end of the spectrum. Nissan’s Titan Warrior is a behemoth of a pickup truck that looks straight out of an action movie. There were a few SUVs on display that incorporated significant fuel economy savings. GMC’s massive Acadia SUV was introduced in a new, lighter version—the company trimmed 700 lbs from the weight of the car to boost its fuel economy by a few miles per gallon to achieve 25 mpg on the highway. Kia also introduced a concept version of its Telluride in a plug-in hybrid version, which achieves an unheard-of 30 mpg on the highway, despite the fact that it fits seven passengers. However, despite all the plug-in and hydrogen vehicles on the showroom floor, with average retail gasoline prices dipping below $2 per gallon, automakers will have to find new ways to get them into the hands of consumers.