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2000 California International Auto Show

The 2000 California International Auto Show was held 20-24 October 1999 at the Convention Center in Anaheim, CA. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first major U.S. auto show of the model year (the big show in Tokyo also happens about the same time), and so it is often the venue for roll-outs of new models. Last year's edition of this show was the first auto show whose alternative-fuel component I covered for this website, and there was even more to see this year! The theme of the show was "2000 And Beyond", and there was a special area designated the Millennium Pavilion to show designs, concept cars, and advanced-powertrain vehicles that represented the future of transportation. Of course, with alternative-fueled vehicles having been on the road in increasing numbers for the last several years, the future is now!

Honda Insight & Toyota Prius

What I most anticipated about this show was the chance to get my first look at the 2000 Honda Insight. That's it in the foreground; with a Toyota Prius in the background, this is is the first time I've seen two hybrid-electric vehicles at the same time! The Prius is a Japanese version with right-hand drive, but the Insight is set up for the USA with left-hand drive, ready for its December 1999 introduction. (Watch this space for a test-drive report, once I am able to rent one from EV Rental Cars.) Regrettably, there was nobody there to answer questions about the Insight, but there was a gent there from Toyota who told me that the summer 2000 date for the U.S. introduction of the Prius is firm, as is its EPA city-highway combined mileage of 55 miles per gallon (the 66 mpg figure you may have heard is on the Japanese urban test cycle, which includes a lot more of the low-speed creeping at which an electric vehicle is enormously more efficient than an ordinary car). The fuel economy of the Insight, 61 mpg city and 70 mpg highway, is the highest ever measured by the EPA; a comparison with another two-seater, the Mazda Miata, on the new EPA fuel economy website indicates that you'll save about $400 a year in gasoline costs, besides having a lower purchase price to begin with (about $18,000 compared with over $20,000 for the Miata; the Prius is expected to cost about $20,000). Is this car ready for prime time, or what?

Honda Insight

Here's a closer look at the rear of the car (sorry about the perspective, but I couldn't back up any further!); it's not readily apparent in this picture, but the Insight has a rear track (distance between the two wheels) that is narrower than its front track. This allows the car to approximate more closely the aerodynamically ideal "teardrop" shape; like the rear wheel skirts, it's a drag-reducing technique that is also employed by the GM EV1. Of course, one thing the EV1 doesn't have is the gasoline fuel-filler door, visible below the quarter window!

Dodge Intrepid ESX2

The wheel-skirt trick is also used by the Dodge Intrepid ESX2, a diesel-electric hybrid concept car that I first saw at last year's Anaheim auto show. One way you can tell that this is a concept car is that it also lacks a fuel-filler door--in fact, of all the concept vehicles in the Millennium Pavilion, only the Dodge Copperhead had one! On a show car you can get away with hiding the fuel inlet in the trunk or something in order to smooth the body lines, but one is tempted to ask "If you guys find the gasoline port so ugly, why doncha just go electric?"

1963 Chrysler Turbine

Of course, alternatives to the conventional internal-combustion powertrain have a long history; you don't even have to go back as far as the turn of the century, when electric and steam vehicles were both as common as gasoline cars, providing a safer option if you didn't want to risk getting your arm broken by the hand crank kicking back. The Petersen Automotive Museum displayed four vehicles from their collection, among them this 1963 Chrysler Turbine (older than I am!); instead of a gasoline engine, its transmission is coupled to a gas turbine. Such turbines spin at an enormous speed compared to even a high-revving motorcycle engine, so gearing the output down to the wheels must have been a tremendous problem; Rosen Motors, in the mid-1990's, built a prototype that instead coupled the turbine to a generator and then fed power to the wheels via an electric motor rather than a gearbox. (They were unable to interest a major automaker in their technology and so they shut down, but Capstone Turbine Corporation survived and is now marketing high-efficiency, low-pollution turbogenerators for "microgeneration", emergency power, and anybody else that wants to build hybrid-electric vehicles.) Without access to such technology 35 years ago, the design was very inefficient; the program never got beyond demo stage, and the 50 prototypes were scrapped except for this one and five others in museums.

Phase III--Continuing the Commitment

The GM PrEView Drive, a demonstration program using the Impact prototype electric vehicle, also made use of 50 cars; the photo above shows that this set of 50 was definitely not a dead end! The poster was on a wall in the Millennium Pavilion; Phase I talked about the PrEView Drive and the 1996 introduction of the EV1, and Phase II discussed the 1998 introduction of the Generation II EV1 (and S-10) electric drivetrain and NiMH batteries. This poster for Phase III is the first time I've seen in print a commitment to refurbish and re-lease the original EV1s as they start coming off lease in December 1999, though as I noted the new brand manager, Ken Stewart, and some other GMATV folks showed up with a "prototype" refurbished 1997 EV1 at the EV1 Club's Malibu rally. I don't know how many months it will take to turn the cars around for re-leasing, but I'll have my van paid off in February 2000... By the way, the only word I could get from anyone at the show about the release date for the 1999 EV1s (they've been built, but not put out for lease because of some unspecified engineering difficulties) was that they're still aiming for "sometime this fall." (As of the third birthday party for the EV1 on 5 December 1999, deliveries had begun.)

Also on the poster in the photo above, you can see that in 2000 GM will begin demonstrating parallel hybrid-electric full-size trucks; this is a great application for a hybrid powertrain, because the fuel economy of large trucks (and sport-utility vehicles?) could definitely use some boosting, while their load-bearing design and large amount of chassis "real estate" makes them well-suited to handling the bulky packaging requirements of battery packs, or fuel cells or compressed natural-gas (CNG) tanks for that matter. I had heard about this program (can't recall where), but I can't find anything about it on the new GM Alternative Fuels website. Another truck that I had heard of but can't find on this website is an E85 compact S-10 pickup that was on display in the Millennium Pavilion; I can't find mention of this powertrain option on the Chevrolet website either, or in the printed brochures available at the show, though one guy there assured me that it was an available option, not just a prototype. Ford and Chrysler introduced E85 capability (the ability to burn any mixture of gasoline and ethanol from 100% gasoline up to 85% ethanol) as standard in all 3.0 liter engines for some models in the 1999 model year; I think Chevy actually had the idea first, considering it for all 2.2-liter 1998 S-10s, but it appears that they have yet to implement it. Of course, in the bi-fuel CNG Cavalier, they already have a natural-gas version of the 2.2-liter engine in production, so if they put that equipment on top of an E85 engine they'd have the world's first tri-fuel vehicle...

In the background of the first picture on this page you can see a Toyota RAV4-EV electric sport-utility vehicle, an EV1, and the Toyota e-com commuter vehicle prototype; there was also a CNG-powered Honda Civic GX over in the main Honda display area, and a NiMH EV1 in Saturn's area, plus the E85 Ford Ranger and Dodge Caravan. It's nice to have more alternative-fueled vehicles on display than I have room to discuss in this report, and we can expect that this is going to be a recurring "problem" at future auto shows!

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new 24 October 1999, revised 10 March 2000