When the North American International Auto Show opened in January 2000, a dozen alternative fuel cars were on display.
This year, the big Detroit show featured some 75 such cars and trucks. And dozens more are close to being road ready, says the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group whose members include BMW Group, Chrysler, Ford Motor, General Motors, Mazda, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota and Volkswagen.
Still, cars that run on something other than gasoline remain a small portion of the market. While consumer research firm J.D. Power estimates that 77% of car shoppers ask about alternative fuel vehicles, fewer than 2% of them actually buy one. Fewer than 400,000 alternative vehicles are on the road, about the same number of cars that cross New York’s Brooklyn Bridge every day.
Vehicles that operate on alternative fuels are a tough sell, says Brett Smith, assistant director of manufacturing technology for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. Buyers are hard to persuade because such vehicles typically cost much more than gas-fueled vehicles — and they don’t offset the higher price with lower operating costs, even with gas prices above $3 per gallon. And refueling and locating repair shops continue to be issues.
Here’s a look at alternative fuel vehicles. The evaluations come from Smith and Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor at Cars.com, a network of 200 Web sites that bring together buyers and sellers:
Vehicles that combine gas- and electric-powered engines have won the most plaudits and acceptance in large part because of a steady stream of ads from sellers and because U.S. government incentives hold down prices.
The pluses: Gas/electric hybrids can have better overall performance than gas alone and can increase fuel efficiency by 40%.
The minuses: These vehicles have two drive trains, which makes them costlier to build than any automaker dares sell them for, says Smith. He estimates that while Toyota, which started research and development earlier than its rivals, is close to crossing the profitability line, U.S. carmakers are four or five years away from making money on these models.
The cars: Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid, Dodge Ram Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, GMC Sierra Hybrid.
Also: Honda Motors’ Accord Hybrid, Civic Hybrid and Insight Hybrid; Lexus’ GS450 h Hybrid, LS 600 hL Hybrid and RX 400 h Hybrid; Mercury’s Mariner Hybrid; Nissan Motor’s Altima Hybrid; Saturn’s Aura Green Line Hybrid and Vue Green Line Hybrid; and Toyota’s Camry Hybrid, Highlander Hybrid and Prius.
Conventional cars capable of running on a mix of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline are the most prevalent alternative-fuel vehicles.
They don’t require much new technology to build.
The pluses: Distilled alcohol — used to make ethanol — doesn’t come from foreign sources. For carmakers, they earn credits toward meeting aggregate fuel economy and environment standards levied by the U.S. government, and they’re cheap enough to build that manufacturers find them profitable.
General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner said at the car show that GM has invested in ethanol maker Coskata, which expects by 2010 to be selling E85 made from garbage and old tires.
The minuses: Burning alcohol creates carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas. So it’s not clear that burning E85 is any better than burning gasoline, Smith says. Plus, ethanol is produced from corn, and diverting corn away from food drives up food costs.
While E85 looks cheaper at the pump, drivers get 15% to 20% less fuel efficiency than they’d get with just normal gas.
Also, E85 pumps can be hard to find. Many owners end up filling these cars with regular gas, Wiesenfelder says.
The cars: Buick’s Terraza and Chevrolet’s Avalanche, Express, Impala, Monte Carlo, Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe, Uplander, Aspen and Sebring all make E85 models.
Also: Chrysler’s Town & Country; Dodge’s Caravan/Grand Caravan, Durango, Dakota and Ram; Ford’s Crown Victoria and F-150 Pickup Truck; GMC’s Savana, Sierra and Yukon; Jeep’s Grand Cherokee and Commander; Lincoln’s Town Car; Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class; Mercury’s Grand Marquis; and Nissan’s Armada and Titan.
The pluses: Clean diesel vehicles, which are widely available in Europe, get about 30% more miles per gallon than all-gas vehicles.
Also, they create less carbon dioxide, which puts them on par with hybrids in their effect on the environment. They’re cheaper to build than a hybrid, needing only $1,000 to $2,000 in devices that clean emissions. And diesel gives power-hungry drivers fast acceleration.
The minuses: Low sulphur diesel is more expensive than gasoline — mostly because the U.S. government taxes it at a higher rate — and it has a bad reputation among U.S. drivers because cars that ran on it before technological improvements had dirty, smelly exhausts.
The cars with clean diesel: Chevrolet’s Express; Dodge’s Ram; Ford’s E-Series and F-Series Super Duty; GMC’s Savana, Sierra 2500 HD and Silverado 2500 HD; Jeep’s Grand Cherokee; Mercedes-Benz E320 BluetecC, Mercedes’ R320 CDI, ML320 CDI and GL320 CDI; and Volkswagen’s Touareg TDI.
The pluses: Hydrogen internal combustion engines — as opposed to hydrogen fuel cells — are ready for prime time.
The minuses: Except in California where makers have installed a network of hydrogen pumps for testing, no pumps are available.
Installing such pumps is costly. “It’s a chicken and egg problem,” Smith said. “You can’t have infrastructure without hydrogen cars, and you can’t have hydrogen cars without infrastructure.”
Just the BMW Hydrogen 7 is in this group, but Honda is testing one.
The pluses: The best-designed models are small and light, but they can survive a crash test and run reliably for more than 100,000 miles. They are simple to make and clean.
Wiesenfelder predicts that by 2010, the same lithium ion batteries that run cell phones and computers will be available in large-enough sizes to run bigger cars farther.
The minuses: Most of the electricity made in the U.S. comes from burning coal, which is no better environmentally than burning oil. Everything depends on the battery, and what’s now available at an affordable price and weight won’t hold enough power for even a munchkin-size vehicle to run more than 40 miles without a recharge.
The cars: Fisker Automotive’s Fisker Karma, Chrysler’s GEM and AFS Trinity Power’s Extreme Hybrid.