Business as Usual


One of the first cars I saw when entering this year’s New York International Auto Show (which ran through March 30 at the Javits Center) was a $203,865 Bentley Continental Flying Spur, a good car to drive if you own an oil well. We’re talking not one but two turbos, 12 cylinders and 552 horsepower. You can reach 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, but you’ll be burning premium gasoline at a rate of 10 miles per gallon (17 on the highway).

Next to the Bentley was a $345,000 Lamborghini Murcielago LP640 roadster, also 12 cylinders, 640 horsepower and just nine mpg around town. Lovely spokesmodel, however.

One would think the age of conspicuous automotive consumption was drawing to a close. Last December, Congress finally passed a bill requiring the country’s fleet of new cars and trucks to achieve an average of 35 mpg by 2020. And with gas prices zooming into the stratosphere (recently I saw $4.25 a gallon for diesel at one station), the hard-hit domestic auto industry might be expected to get serious about small, fuel-efficient cars. Unfortunately, the ’08 auto show was mostly business as usual.

Gas guzzlers were the norm, with the green stuff around the edges and mostly concentrated in the show-only concept cars. The giveaway is gullwing doors: Auto companies love the way they look, but they’re totally impractical for production. So Dodge’s carbon fiber 2+2 Zeo Concept, with a lithium-ion battery pack and a supposed 250-mile all-electric range, was gullwinged and very unlikely to ever see production.

Similarly outlandish was the Jeep Renegade concept, which was as full of angles as Richard Nixon on a witness stand. Again, we had a supposed "eco-friendly" hybrid vehicle with li-ion batteries and a Bluetec diesel. But since Chrysler and Mercedes are divorced, this one’s an orphan. Other "green" vehicles, such as the GMC Denali XT Hybrid, the Saturn Flextreme (with two onboard Segways) and the Toyota A-Bat hybrid pickup, just looked silly.

Two concept cars were intriguing: The cute-as-a-button li-ion-powered Mitsubishi I-MIEV Sport, with in-wheel motors, a solar photovoltaic roof and projected 125 miles of battery-only range and the Volkswagen Space Up! Blue, with both 12 li-ion batteries and a small high-temperature fuel cell for a combined 220 miles of range.

Of these, the roomy, two-seat I-MIEV looked ready for production as an urban runabout to compete with the Smart. It can be fast-charged to 80 percent battery capacity in 20 minutes. Subaru also offered an egg-shaped li-ion car, the R1e, which appeared similarly practical (though range was only 50 miles).

People were detouring around the Honda Clarity FCX, but it was one of the more significant vehicles in the show, a production-ready fuel-cell car that’s getting a workout on public roads this year. It has 270-mile range on hydrogen and sat next to a map display indicating Los Angeles could have no less than 17 hydrogen stations by ’13.

For the most part, dinosaurs walk the earth. The EcoBoost V-6-powered Lincoln MKT was supposed to be "kind on the environment," but it also was massive. And why did Cadillac showcase GM fuel-cell technology in the big Provoq luxury SUV? Surely hydrogen cars should be lightweight? A sign of the times is there are an even dozen vehicles on the market today with at least 600 horsepower, ranging from the Aston Martin Vantage RS to the Bugatti Veyron. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.