NAIAS 2012 Green-Car Ride and Drive

Each year there is a lightly guarded secret residing in the basement of the North American International Auto Show, a complete green-car ride and drive test track.  This brilliant marketing event was unveiled three years ago to great fanfare and some truly unexpected landscaping; more than 200 trees, 600 shrubs, 5,000 flowers and 130,000 gallons of water complete with a waterfall.  The environment delighted your senses as you entered the basement by way of the escalator.  Visually it was stunning and boggled the mind as it tried to understand how the outdoors came to be indoors.  The sound of the waterfall was relaxing and the air divine.  The marketing department of every eco-friendly car manufacturer should take note, for nowhere else have I ever seen such a complete sensory experience that perfectly conveys what the eco-friendly movement is all about.

The event has slowly slipped into the sub-conscious over the last 3 years as the industry realizes the market for green cars, as any new business, takes time to turn a profit.  This year the event was a mere shadow of its former self as green shrubbery was replaced with sand dunes.  Sponsored by Pure Michigan(TM), the state's tourism program, the dunes were meant to represent the sandy Michigan.  This local imagery just didn’t fit with the green-car track that is a real shame because the products being demonstrated today have come a long way from what was shown just three short years ago.

A little background about myself as a consumer is necessary before I continue.  I am an auto enthusiast.  You know the type, when I cut myself working on my racecar or my latest half-finished project I bleed motor oil.  I am a huge fan of the internal combustion engine and have rebuilt or repaired more than I care to recollect.  Don't get me wrong; I am not anti-green, in fact far from it.  But, I am a pragmatist when it comes to the environment - I recycle when I can, try to consider the impact on the environment of my actions, and I even bought two diesel vehicles in 2005.  Lets put it this way, if you can convince me to buy one of the green cars or trucks on show at the green-car track at the NAIAIS 2012 then the industry has really arrived.  With this in mind, I ventured into the basement to compare the performance of eight different offerings on display this year.

AMP Grand Cherokee

Full Electrics & Fuel Cells

After driving all the electric vehicles the Nissan Leaf would be my choice out of this group because it delivers on the electric driving experience with interesting design- it is just different enough to remind me that my money was well spent.  Unlike the others the Leaf was designed from the beginning to be an electric car and that intention was apparent when looking or when sitting in it.  While I am not a fan of the exterior design, the interior is pleasant and the car functioned well in all the driving maneuvers.  My second choice would be the AMP Grand Cherokee (pictured above).  AMP converts new Jeep Grand Cherokees to full electric in their new manufacturing facility outside Cincinnati, Ohio.  The conversion is well done, but during the drive I noticed some shudder from coasting to acceleration - something that should never happen in a $57,000 plus price range. 

The CODA was a distant third in my evaluation, which is a real shame because the technical specifications are superb.  With a longer range and faster charge time than the Leaf, it would find a larger market except for the fact that the CODA is actually based on a much older Mitsubishi chassis design and the difference in quality of the bodywork and interior were quite noticeable.  The Mercedes F-Cell was next to last on this list.  It is just like getting into a typical car, insert the key, turn the switch to on and wait for the green lights to tell you it is ok to go.  The F-Cell exhibited all kinds of strange noises while driving, of which the most annoying was the air pump for the hydrogen fuel cell - it sounded like the hydraulic pumps on Airbus passenger planes.  There was excessive regenerative braking and the pedal feedback was the worst feel of the lot, with exception of its sibling smart.  Bringing up the rear of this group was the Smart Electric Drive.  The smart had an objectionable electric motor whine, although I am told the 3rd generation design is substantially improved.  The regenerative brakes were also terrible and the sum-total of my experience was that I felt like I was driving an expensive golf cart; it falls under the "I wouldn't want one if you gave it to me" category.

CODA all electric


 Buick Lacrosse eAssist

Choosing between the Hybrids was a more difficult task and ultimately there was no clear winner here.  Unlike the electric car that would only work for me as a secondary vehicle, the Kia Optima Hybrid, the Buick Lacrosse eAssist and the Chevrolet Volt had a shot at being used as my primary vehicle.  My first choice would be the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt has had its share of controversy over the past year, initially presented as an electric vehicle with a gas engine that functions as an on-board charger, it later became clear that sometime the gas engine drives the wheels directly.  Not a true electric, nor a true hybrid, the Achilles heel of the Volt is its relative short range between fill-ups.  My choice of the Volt would have to be contingent on having another vehicle to make long trips with.  The idea of stopping every few hundred miles to refuel on my way down to the Carolina coast would be enough to turn me off. 

Kia Optima Hybrid

Second is a toss-up between the Buick Lacrosse eAssist and the Kia Optima Hybrid.  Both seem to function similarly well, even though they are completely different Hybrids.  The Optima is a typical Hybrid that starts in electric mode until the speed dictates the gas engine is ready to take over.  The Lacrosse eAssist is actually a belt-alternator-starter (BAS) hybrid but Buick has re-branded the system to avoid comparisons with the Prius.  The eAssist functions by stopping the engine when the car halts, then using the stored energy in the battery package to restart when the accelerator pedal is pushed down again.  It also provides a little extra oomph when accelerating which allows the Lacrosse to make do with a smaller motor than otherwise needed.  The difference between the Kia and the Buick is minimal.  In my opinion the Kia is more attractive from the outside and the Buick from the inside so your choice might dictate a different outcome.  Both offer similar improvements in economy but I do not yet see the cost benefit for the extra cost of the hybrid system unless gas in the States gets more expensive. 

So at the end of the day the questions comes down to "would I be comfortable buying either the Chevrolet Volt of Nissan Leaf?" and the answer is maybe.  I cannot see either of these cars as the primary driver for my family or myself.  Our lifestyle involves too much driving for either one to make much sense - a diesel is still the better choice.  But I can certainly see that either of these could be the perfect second car, to be used for errands or the shorter hops like heading out for the evening.  And in that respect I have to admit the industry has come a long way.


Frank Schwartz is the main voice behind thethesupplierblog, the spiritual successor to the chromtecblog. A long time automotive enthusiast, Frank has spent years working hand in hand with the automotive industry on products as varied as cruise controls, fuel injection systems, exterior lighting, trim components and wheels. Thesupplierblog is intended to be a real-world resource for automotive manufacturers and dealers where open discussion of industry issues is encouraged

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