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January 29, 2013 1:00 AM

Green-car devotion strong at Detroit auto show


The Tesla Model X was among the new electric options at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (The Associated Press)

The greenest cars on the market -- electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids -- have attracted very few buyers so far. But instead of scaling back, major automakers are eager to bring more battery-powered models to their showrooms.

Two of the biggest producers, General Motors and Nissan, served notice at the annual Detroit auto show that they are in the electric-car business for the long haul.

GM, the biggest U.S. automaker, said that it would begin production this year of the Cadillac ELR, a luxury version of the Chevrolet Volt, the company's current extended-range plug-in hybrid sedan.

Japanese automaker Nissan is taking a different approach to lift sales of its all-electric Leaf sedan. Rather than turn more upscale, it will offer a new base-model Leaf that is $6,000, or 18 percent, cheaper than the current car.

Both strategies have the same intent -- to lure a wider range of consumers to electric cars.

"We think the Volt is very much a success story for General Motors and that the ELR will feed off that success," says Robert E. Ferguson, head of GM's Cadillac brand.
GM hopes its new Cadillac plug-in will attract affluent consumers who want an eco-friendly car but don't want to scrimp on luxury options, such as a suede interior and a power-assisted cup holder.

"There are wealthy people who don't consider price to be an obstacle when buying electric," says Joseph Phillippi, head of the market-research firm AutoTrends. "In Silicon Valley, they'd write a check for the ELR without thinking about it."

Ferguson declined to say how many ELRs GM planned to build, or what the price would be. The vehicle will be built in limited numbers alongside the Volt at a plant in the Detroit area.

"We haven't decided on the price yet," he says. "But the car and the value it provides will be compelling."

Analysts say GM would most likely build 2,000 to 3,000 ELRs a year, which represents an incremental increase in its plug-in production.

Nissan is faced with the more serious challenge of spurring demand for the Leaf at the same time that it opens a new assembly plant for the car in Tennessee.

Last year, Nissan sold about 9,800 Leafs in the United States, less than half of what it had originally projected.

Nissan's chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, said at the Detroit show that a new, more modestly equipped Leaf would go on sale next month for $28,800, before federal and state tax credits.

That is a large reduction from the $35,000 sticker price for what previously was the car's base model.

Despite the slow sales, Ghosn has hardly backed off his belief that electric cars can account for 10 percent of all Nissan sales by 2020.

"Zero emissions are here to stay," he says.

GM and Nissan have placed the biggest bets on battery power among the major automakers. But they are not alone.

Toyota sells a plug-in model of its popular Prius hybrid sedan and an electric version of its small RAV4 sport utility vehicle. Last year, the Ford Motor Co. began offering an electric-powered variation of its mainstay Focus sedan, and it is planning other vehicles primarily powered by batteries.

Other new entries coming to market include small electric cars from Italian automaker Fiat and German luxury-car company BMW.

While fuel efficiency in general was a prime topic at the Detroit show last week, most of the attention was on traditional, gas-powered vehicles such as pickup trucks, sports cars and SUVs.

Standing out from the crowd, however, was electric-car company Tesla Motors, which is based in California.

Tesla unveiled a coming electric SUV that can travel nearly 300 miles on a fully charged battery.

The Tesla Model X, which is scheduled to go on sale next year, follows the introduction in 2012 of the company's high-performance Model S sedan.

Tesla, Nissan and Ford have received hefty government energy loans to hasten the development of electric-car technology.

Tesla executive George Blankenship says Tesla's progress could not be measured by early sales figures.

"This isn't about numbers to us -- it's about a long-term vision," he says. "And our vision is to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles."