As automakers rolled out new vehicles during the Detroit auto show it was clear that the glitzy introductions of electric-vehicle concepts at past shows have given way to a more prosaic — but realistic — emphasis on high-tech internal-combustion engines.
At the 2007 Frankfurt show alone, German car companies showed dozens of hybrids and EVs.
This year in Detroit? “Less electrification hype,” analyst David Leiker of Baird Equity Research said.
In part that’s because EVs and hybrids no longer are novelties, he said. But there’s a dollars-and-cents reason, too. Given the increased efficiency of refined gasoline engines and the relatively stable price of gasoline, the payback period for a hybrid — much less an EV or plug-in — has gotten longer.
Susan Cischke, a group vice president at Ford, said the fuel-efficiency of advanced gasoline engines rivals that of hybrids.
“Look at our EcoBoost engine — we’re getting fuel economies that approach hybrids,” Cischke said. “So at some point you don’t want to pick technology for technology’s sake. You want to look at the performance. With an oil-based product, we can still do as well as with a hybrid.”
Even some advocates are viewing electrification cautiously.
“I think it will be May or June before we know if this thing really has legs,” General Motors Vice Chairman Steve Girsky said of the staying power of the plug-in hybrid technology in the Chevrolet Volt.
Automakers certainly will continue to push various forms of electric drive for the long term. But consumer response to electrification has been tepid: Even the least-costly and most-familiar form — hybrids — have stubbornly stayed at 2 to 3 percent share of the U.S. market.
Automakers say gasoline-powered vehicles using technologies such as turbocharging and direct fuel injection can meet targets for the early years, at least, of new federal fuel economy standards. Their prices are palatable to consumers. The technology exists. And auto marketers don’t have to finesse consumer worries about driving range and refueling infrastructure.
That explains why fuel-efficient internal combustion engines were a significant part of many product unveilings at the Detroit show:
– Ford is offering hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of its 2013 Fusion. But it predicts the 1.6-liter, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine, which it says will get 37 mpg on the highway, will be the most popular option.
Ford is betting big on EcoBoost engines, which are turbocharged and have gasoline direct injection. Ford is increasing North American production from 160,000 in 2011 to 560,000 in 2012, said Ford spokesman Richard Truett.
– Both Chevrolet coupe concepts that GM showed have 1.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engines. If GM gives the green light, production models would get at least 40 mpg on the highway.
– Mazda’s CX-5, which comes out in March, gets 35 mpg highway when equipped with a manual transmission.
– The Dodge Dart is expected to be rated at 40 mpg on the highway, according to Dodge brand boss Reid Bigland.
– Volvo Car Corp. plans to adopt its new four-cylinder engine family in most of its models starting next year, said CEO Stefan Jacoby. Volvo’s VEA four-cylinder engines will replace all of the company’s four-, five- and six-cylinder powerplants starting in 2013. Volvo executives say the smaller-displacement engines will have the power and performance of its current range, but fuel economy will increase up to 30 percent.
There are countertrends. Toyota is betting that the sub-$20,000 Prius C hybrid will draw budget-conscious buyers. And in a press conference at the show, Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said the company has no second thoughts about the battery pack and EV capacity it is adding at Smyrna, Tenn., this year.
Meanwhile, analyst Leiker wrote in a note to investors that, with advances in internal combustion efficiency, “electrification is fading into the background.”