Auto Mania

Car makers flock to New York City to showcase their newest and greenest vehicles.

By Susan Cosier

Chrome-plated, spot lit, and slowly circling, the cars at the New York International Auto Show are as dazzling as Miss America contestants. Visitors can size up the fast, luxury cars, the concept cars, and the green cars, evaluating the merits of each. The show, held at the Javits Center next week, is just as much about glam as it is about cars.

Yesterday, as heavily made-up women wearing dresses and stiletto heels smiled and gestured toward cars like models on the Price Is Right, members of the media dressed in suits and sipping Starbucks gathered around the Mercedes stage, waiting for a press conference to begin. James Bond music played over the loud speakers and sexy car images flashed on the jumbo screen behind the stage. The lights dimmed and a company executive walked up on stage, his image projected onto the JumboTron. “We’ve got a lot to show you today,” he said.

Each company does what it can to attract people to its cars, and some do a better job than others. One thing that is sure to grab the attention of the crowd is the concept car. At this year’s show, a few of them are not only flashy, but also more environmentally friendly than most vehicles currently on the market.

Chevrolet’s concept car, the Volt, uses the Mixte System designed by Ferdinand Porsche in 1897. Now called a series hybrid, it has a gasoline engine and electric motors in the hubs of the wheels. The gasoline engine powers a generator, which charges a battery, which in turn fuels the electric motors. The car can be plugged in to help the batteries reach their maximum storage capacity.

Over in the Toyota section, hybrids, including two other green concept cars, are on display. The hybrid Highlander, set to come out this fall, and the sleek-looking FT-HS are positioned on a stage. Cameramen focused on a Toyota spokesperson touting the benefits of the hybrid system and explaining their significance. “The FT-HS is the first hybrid sports car concept,” he said. Here, unlike some other areas of the floor, each car is accompanied by an information sheet, complete with how many miles per gallon each model gets in the city and on the highway.

Lexus also has its hybrid cars prominently displayed at this year’s show. These cars are not plug-ins, but run on gas and electricity. To get the full story on one of the cars scheduled to come out later this year, a member of the press conducted an interview in the back seat of a rotating Lexus. Both cars meet California’s Super Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle Certification (SULEV). To demonstrate the system, there is a separate display with an engine and a screen explaining the features.

When compared to the Lexus hybrid exhibit, Honda’s pales in comparison. Honda, which was just named America’s 2007 Greenest Automaker from the Union of Concerned Scientists, has an exhibit of fuel cell technology, but doesn’t have a model of the real car, the FCX, at the show; the two models they use are in Japan and China, a spokesperson explained. Twenty FCXs are scattered throughout the country. “The Spallinos were our first fuel cell family,” said Raquel, a Honda products specialist at the show. They got the car in 2005. Q'Orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas in The New World, is also a lucky owner of one of these cutting-edge vehicles. The new version will be commercially available by mid-2008.

It’s not surprising that celebrities are positioned behind the wheel of some of the cars at the auto show. It also wouldn’t be shocking if some came to the show itself. With all of the flashing lights and gleaming fenders, it has the feeling of a red-carpet event.

Green cars are on display right next to car lovers’ classics, and they are getting even more recognition now that the price of gas is creeping ever higher. But they might be more popular with the crowd if they jazzed up their displays and showed that they aren’t just a passing trend, but are now part of the ceremony. Maybe a little James Bond music would help.

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The Volt looks good and has promise. Your caption should identify it as a GM-Chevy,not a Chyrsler.

Love to see the racy new cars and sexy bodies. They stir up a range of emotions...and questions:

How MANY mpg does Volt get? And why not provide a competitive comparison of all the cars in the exhibition, to reveal best mileage?

Also, let's not forget to explore the big picture. I.e.: what about measurement of carbon emissions in the manufacturing and distribution of the vehicles?

And how does *that* compare with the latest bullet trains?

After all, green cars are exciting, but not if it means eliminating whole ecosystems in the process.

Thanks for pointing out the error, Joe!

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