Economic Engine

Detroit’s Green Leap Forward Pulls In to New York Auto Show

Can efficiency drive U.S. automakers back to the top? Daniel Gross visits the New York Auto Show.

On the dashboard of the Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid, there’s a screen that shows a vine with a bunch of leaves on it. Punch the accelerator too aggressively, or slam on the brakes too rapidly, and the leaves began to fall off—an almost poetic admonition that you’re not driving in a very ecological manner.

By the time I arrived at my destination, after a half hour of aggressive Manhattan driving, the vines began to look as if they had been sprayed with too much pesticide. But the results were nonetheless pleasing: I had traveled about 13 miles on electricity alone.

In Manhattan this week, green is the new black. The New York Auto Show takes over the Javitz Center on the far west side of Manhattan for the next several days. Autos are America’s biggest manufacturing industry, the biggest retailing industry, and among the largest advertisers. This is the place where automakers show off brawn, power, and sex appeal. There was plenty of all that at the Javitz: Ram trucks the size of boats, gleaming McLarens and Rolls-Royces, all attended by fleets of models and ultra-bright lights. Sex sells cars. But in this age of the greening of the U.S. auto fleet, so does smart engineering and pinching pennies.

Not too long ago, the conversation about fuel-efficient cars was led and conducted almost entirely by foreign companies—hybrids from Toyota, clean-diesel vehicles from Germany, the Nissan Leaf. But that’s changed. And this year, American companies in particular seem to be leading with efficiency. The revival of the U.S. auto industry—the recovery of GM and Chrysler from bankruptcy, and Ford’s wrenching restructuring—has been one of the great, under-appreciated stories of the last several years. In New York this week, however, the comeback is on full display.

In the GM pavilion, the attractive spokesperson held a group of dealers spellbound as she ran through the virtues of the Cadillac ELR, which in many ways is a more upscale version of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. “It can be an electric car for those who want to drive it as one,” she said. The corridor leading to GM-land was lined with small gas sippers; it looked like the lineup at a car-rental stall in Italy. There was the tiny Spark, which arrived last July and retails for $12,995; the subcompact Sonic; and the slightly bigger Cruze, which can get up to 42 miles per gallon.

At GM, small is the new big beautiful. And 30 miles per gallon is the new 20 miles per gallon. The Impala, the boat of my Michigan youth, and the Camaro, the 2013 edition of which was growling loudly in the back of GM’s area, both get 30 miles per gallon on the highway. “Most of the car markets are demanding efficiency,” said Christi Landy, marketing director at GM for small vehicles like the Spark and Volt. The Volt, which can run for about 30 miles on electricity and has been slow to catch on, has been mocked by critics of GM. But there are 30,000 on the road, and their drivers have collectively driven more than 150 million miles on electricity. More important, notes Landy, “we have the most satisfied buyers in the industry, and we’ve shared the technology in the Volt with other vehicles.” The system that powers the Volt can be found in the Cadillac ELR and in the new Spark EV, an all-electric car that GM will launch in select markets this summer.

Before the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, Detroit generally preferred focusing on pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles because they cost more and boasted higher margins. Smaller cars meant smaller profits. But today’s small cars are stuffed with options, and increasingly come in more expensive varieties—hybrid, clean diesel, plug-in hybrid. In many instances, the more expensive, greener versions of the basic coupes and sedans are doing well. The Ford Fusion is Ford’s bestselling car, with 50,000 units sold so far in the first two months of 2013. But while the typical Fusion stays on the lot for 22 days, the typical Fusion hybrid is sold in 12 days. “The Fusions are going really fast,” said Samantha Hoyt, marketing manager for Ford Fusion, who occupied the shotgun seat as I carved my electricity-driven route through Manhattan traffic.

Something else has changed about the marketing of green driving. Historically, fuel-efficient cars like hybrids were pitched to early adopters and tree-huggers who wanted to show their virtue by driving instantly recognizable gas-sippers like the Toyota Prius. Detroit wants those customers. But increasingly, it is taking a no-nonsense approach that highlights how the interior workings of the vehicle can help save customers money. Engineers have been busy making incremental gains through styling, reworking transmissions, and transplanting technologies into existing models. Many Ford and Chevrolet models—including pickup trucks—now offer an eco option that uses more sophisticated engineering to boost gas mileage. Chevrolet is introducing a Cruze that runs on diesel. While the Environmental Protection Agency is still evaluating the model, GM says the diesel Cruze will be able to travel more than 600 miles on a single gas tank.

Some U.S. carmakers seem to be making quantum leaps in efficiency. Take Chrysler’s popular Jeep line. For virtually all of the Jeep’s history, mileage and efficiency took a back seat to power and utility. But this year’s models, which are sleekly styled and less boxy, get 30 miles per gallon on the highway—a stunning increase of 45 percent in a single year. How? “We knew we had to work so our vehicles would be competitive in a changing marketplace,” said Chrysler engineer Audrey Moore. The Jeep is still a powerful vehicle. But it is more aerodynamic and boasts a more efficient nine-speed transmission.

If, as promised, these gains in efficiency come without detracting from driving performance, they will go a long way to building customer loyalty. In effect, the current models of these cars are much cheaper to operate than previous years’ models. But U.S. car companies are also hoping that the new focus on efficiency will bring in new buyers. For GM, the Spark and Sonic are a means of attracting more young buyers, more women, and more first-time purchasers. Landy dubbed these “high-conquesting vehicles,” meaning that more than 50 percent of those who buy them previously bought vehicles from other companies. “That’s a tough thing to do in this business,” Landy said.