Detroit Auto Show 2009: Green Rules

Motor City carmakers GM and Ford are under pressure to produce hybrids and electric vehicles to compete with upstart carmakers out of Silicon Valley and China. Check out our photo gallery.
Making its debut at the Detroit auto show this year is Tesla, a 5-year-old Silicon Valley company founded by Elon Musk, who founded and sold PayPal to eBay for $1.5 billion. Among Tesla's early investors were Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who each own a Tesla Roadster.

GM's first mini car, the gas-powered Spark.
(click for image gallery)

The Roadster is the only highway-capable, all-electric vehicle on the road. This is tempered by the fact that you must be filthy rich to afford one: They start at $109,000. But thanks to green-minded Hollywood stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney each own one), wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and Manhattan bankers, Tesla has sold 150 Roadsters and has 1,100 orders in the pipeline. Buyers are also emerging in Florida and Texas, and Tesla plans to open retail stores in Chicago, Miami, and Seattle this year, said senior communications manager Rachel Konrad.

The Roadster doesn't use any gas and doesn't even have a tailpipe; it's powered on 6,831 lithium-ion batteries. Tesla is developing a $57,500, four-door EV sedan for availability in late 2011, and also is planning an under-$30,000 model, Konrad said.

Green efforts weren't entirely about hybrids and EVs. GM debuted the futuristic-looking Spark, which gets 40 mpg and is the company's first "mini" vehicle, said a spokesman. It will sell first in Asia and Europe, with a U.S. debut planned in the 2010 or 2011, he said.

GM also introduced the Orlando, which it calls a "multipurpose" vehicle but would probably be classified as a crossover; it looks like a mini-mini-van. The Orlando is based on the same architecture as the Chevrolet Cruise compact car and offers five doors and seven seats, six of which can be fully folded down. GM plans to market the vehicle as a fuel-efficient, easy-handling alternative to an SUV or mini-van, with production slated for 2011, said a spokesman.

There were some newcomers, too. China's BYD (of which investor Warren Buffet owns a stake) showed off its simple and sensible vehicles -- a few hybrid models and one all-electric vehicle, the e6, which it plans to start selling in the United States in 2011, said a spokeswoman.

All of the green talk aside, the show's "Car of the Year" award, chosen by a panel of auto industry journalists, went to the Hyundai Genesis, which could help the automaker finally shed its low-end image. The luxury sedan offers 375 horsepower and gets to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. It offers eight airbags, a back-up camera, and Bluetooth, and starts at $42,100.

But with 18 mpg in the city and 27 in the highway, the Hyundai Genesis could be the last big-engine, gas-powered vehicle to walk away with the coveted annual award, given the push toward hybrids and EVs.

To see photos of the prize-winning Hyundai Genesis and other concept cars and production models at the Detroit Auto Show, click here.

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Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer