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Carmakers' challenge: Green, mean machines

They try to balance buyer demands with eco-friendly future

By Jeff Plungis,, Ed Garsten and Mark Truby / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- Henry Ford once offered Model Ts in any color as long as they were black.

Now automakers are attempting to pull off a far trickier chromatic challenge: wrapping themselves in green with a host of enviro-friendly initiatives, while at the same time pumping up the horsepower hype with gas-chugging new sports cars and trucks.

"Our companies are eager to do the right thing," said Jo Cooper, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the auto industry's main lobbying group. "But they've got to do it while they're selling their products."

The 700,000-square-foot Cobo Center show floor at the North American International Auto Show is the perfect vantage point to observe the mixed signals flowing from the auto industry these days.

At the Ford Motor Co. display, the Ford 427 concept sedan -- all chrome and polished black surfaces -- is packing a V-10 engine that cranks out 590 horsepower. Ford designer J Mays quipped last week that anyone behind the wheel of this retro rocket looks like they're up to no good.

A few feet away is the antithesis to the 427, Ford's Model U sport-utility vehicle concept. The Model U is made from soy beans, corn and other recyclables and its hydrogen-powered engine spills water instead of carbon dioxide from its tailpipe.

And that's just Ford. Every major automaker is trying to straddle the vast divide between what buyers crave today and the more environmentally responsible technologies that represent the future.

Toyota Motor Corp.'s luxury Lexus brand will build a hybrid SUV late next year, but for now it is selling more mid-sized and large SUVs powered by V-6 and V-8 engines than ever before. When Jim Press, head of Toyota's U.S. sales arm, unveiled the new hybrid Lexus concept, he said technology would allow consumers to have it all without guilt.

"It's like eating a chocolate souffle without worrying about the calories," Press said.

General Motors Corp. is drawing raves with the Cadillac Sixteen show car, powered by a 1000-horsepower engine.

Bob Lutz -- the man behind the gas guzzling Dodge Viper in his days at the former Chrysler Corp., and the guiding force behind the Cadillac Sixteen as head of GM's product development efforts -- says the public simply expects ample horsepower.

"Even if people don't use the 450 or however many horsepower, the fact that it's there lends a certain amount of prestige and comfort," Lutz said in a recent interview.

At the same time, GM is launching an initiative to sell as many as 1 million vehicles powered by hybrid gas-electric powertrains. But the world's largest automaker can't create a demand that doesn't exist.

Byron McCormick, GM's executive director of global fuel cell activities, said there is a disconnect between what is needed for the environment and what consumers are demanding. He cited, for example, the rising percentage of SUV and truck purchases compared with the tiny percentage of fuel-efficient vehicles sold.

McCormick said enlightened government policies would help change the trends. That means tax incentives and investment incentives, not restrictions, he said.

"The very basics of how our government and how our economy runs is of the people, by the people and for the people," he said. "The people decide. Every time we've tried to tell the consumer, 'You will buy this,' there's been a backlash. I'm not sure how intelligent it is or how politically viable it is to tell people they can't have what they want."

Lutz is blunt in his skepticism of the market for green vehicles -- saying gasoline prices are too low to motivate consumers to switch.

Still, the automaker isn't about to allow Toyota and Honda to claim the mantle as the green automakers.

"You can't just fly in the face of public opinion, especially not when you're General Motors," Lutz said. "Rightly or wrongly, we have the reputation of opposing things so I think it's self-defeating to constantly say to ourselves, It's not gonna work.'"

On Friday, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was given a tour of the fuel cell and hybrid vehicles being shown at the auto show by GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG.

Michigan's former U.S. senator said displaying lean and green vehicles next to brawny and mean is merely an exhibition of the industry's technological nimbleness.

"It's showing its farsightedness and new innovations and at the same time satisfying today's market demand."

With the proliferation of hybrids, the industry is acknowledging the changes it will have to make to reduce the impact on the environment. The rest of the auto show is about what the car companies have to do to stay in business: keep consumers happy and excited about buying cars. That means more power, more speed and more size.

Cooper said public events such as the auto show, even though it's a showcase for horsepower, help the industry's efforts to advance alternative fuel technology because Ford, GM, Toyota and others often compete to match each other's environmental commitments.

Environmentalists are trying various strategies to change public opinion about the cars consumers should drive.

Recent advertising campaigns equating SUV ownership with supporting terrorism and linking vehicle choice with morality, as in "What Would Jesus Drive?" is one choice. Another can be seen this week, as the public goes to the auto show.

The Michigan Environmental Council and the Sierra Club are targeting children to become "environmental deputies" by finding the green and the dirty vehicles at the show. The idea is to tap into the next generation of car buyers early.

Auto companies know that younger car buyers are concerned about environmental issues. Models targeted at "Generation Y," like Toyota's new Scion line, the Honda Element and the Mini Cooper, are smaller and more efficient than today's best-selling SUVs.

Mike Schwartz, director of fuel cell programs at Ford Motor Co., said the now-canceled Think Electric vehicle program taught the company that the greener vehicles it offers in the future have to match or exceed consumer expectations.

"We don't want to put vehicles out there that people say are dogs, but it's good for the environment," Schwartz said. "We're not going to bank on the notion that people will spend extra money or sacrifice performance because the vehicle is environmentally good."

On the mixed messages of the auto show -- environmentally friendly vehicles alongside the newest SUVs and bigger, more powerful engines -- Schwartz noted that if all of the vehicles sold were the extreme versions seen in Cobo Center, it would harm the environment. But the auto show is about building up consumer excitement.

"We have to answer the wants and needs of the buying public," Schwartz said. "A good portion of them want that feeling of rapid acceleration, and a big portion of them won't stand for any slippage."

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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