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Why so many hybrids and electrics at the NY show?

by David Zatz on

The New York City Auto Show hosted a surprisingly large number of electric and hybrid cars this year, including at least two BMWs, the Hyundai Ioniq (a combination of the Toyota IQ and Saturn Ion?), the Pacifica hybrid, a new Prius, and an entire collection of electrics and hydrogen cars in the basement.

It would be easy enough to slam the industry for wasting money on alternative-energy cars when there’s no real demand for them, given low fuel prices. There is logic to it, though.

First, fuel prices go up and down, and, traditionally, when they go up, any automaker without an extremely efficient model will have their entire line ignored — witness Chrysler in the last gas-price run-up, when they had the most fuel efficient minivan but customers still went to Hondas and Toyotas because “everyone knows they’re more efficient.” Nobody wants to go into the next fuel price hike with a reputation for being stuck back in the old fuel-hog era.

Second, it takes many years to create a new car, especially with a completely new powertrain. Dodge was roundly slammed by critics for coming out with a new pickup truck in 2008 (the 2009 model year), just as fuel prices were spiking; but how were they supposed to know this when they started working on it in 2003-05?  Some of the projects just now coming to fruition were likely started in 2008 with high fuel prices. Few could have projected the current situation.

Third, and most important for some, governments around the world are demanding lower average fuel use. That could mean making every car more efficient, but more often than not, it means making some very efficient cars to support the less efficient ones. In short, rather than making all Dodges with four cylinders, they keep the current lineup and add a Pacifica plug-in hybrid, Cherokee stop-start, and presumably numerous other hybrids, stop-start cars, and such.  Every automaker faces the same constraints and many are making similar bets.

The result is that if you love new tech, the New York Auto Show has plenty of it; Toyota and Hyundai both have nicely done displays, labelled and with transparent sections, to complement the motorized GM and Dodge “engine under glass” demonstrations.

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