NAIAS: Detroit auto show spotlights plug-ins/hybrids

Overflow crowds, up about 3 to 5 percent over attendance last year, descended on this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Mich.

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Overflow crowds, up about 3 to 5 percent over attendance last year, descended on this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Mich. Held in the Motor City’s Cobo Hall, Jan. 14-27, it signified industry confidence in the economy as it stabilizes. Auto market analyst predicted sales of 15 million light vehicle sales in 2013, or an increase of about 4 percent over the 14.4 million vehicles sold in 2012.

The sales surge continues to be driven, in large part, by the release of pent-up demand from buyers who deferred buying or leasing a new vehicle during the recession. The market is also expected to receive a boost from nearly 500,000 more lease returners, compared to 2012, who are expected to buy or lease a new vehicle when their lease terminates.

There were 59 new vehicle introductions at the show, of which nine were exclusive to the North American market. With ever-more stringent fuel economy standards on the horizon, new and revamped hybrid and all-electric vehicles shared the spotlight with fresh introductions of more fuel-efficient pickup trucks and technology- and perk-laden SUVs and luxury cars.

Thermoplastic composites have played, and will continue to play, a prominent role in the industry’s effort to lightweight and improve fuel economy. In cars equipped with conventional internal combustion engines and diesel engines, composites have seen steady growth in underhood, body and high-temperature powertrain applications. In hybrids and all-electrics, composites are already the material of choice for battery packs, and they will likely play an expanded role in body interior and exterior components.

Ford Motor Co.’s (Dearborn, Mich.) electric/hybrid lineup now includes three vehicles with EPA ratings of 100 mpge or more: the Focus Electric, C-MAX Hybrid and C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid. Ford claims the C-MAX Hybrid line, which launched late last year, has become the fastest-selling hybrid ever at launch, with 8,030 units sold in its first two months on the market, outpacing the record of 7,300 held by the 2006 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Ford used the show to introduce the second of its plug-in hybrids, the Fusion Energi, said to be the top-performing plug-in on the market, with a range of 620 miles/998 km (assuming a fully charged battery and full gas tank at start). Ford also announced that customers will now have the choice to order both the Fusion and the Focus as an all-electric, hybrid or plug-in hybrid.

In Germany automakers are expanding hybrid platforms, as evidenced by the North American premiere of the 2013 Volkswagen (VW, Wolfsburg, Germany) Jetta Hybrid, powered by a new lightweight, turbocharged 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine capable of 150 hp, coupled to a 140-kW/27-hp electric motor. The total output of 170 hp is sent through a seven-speed transmission, giving it the distinction of being the first hybrid to use a dual-clutch automatic transmission. VW also displayed a plug-in SUV prototype called CrossBlue that mates a diesel engine with two electric motors. The vehicle can travel 14 miles/22.5 km in all-electric mode and gets an estimated 35 mpg while running on both gas and electric.

Guangzhou, China-based automaker Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. Ltd. (GAC) had three vehicles on display, including the Triumpchi, a four-wheel drive hybrid with a 1.8-liter gas engine; the Triumpchi GS5 BEV, a pure electric concept crossover vehicle; and the all-electric E-jet concept sedan. Although GAC is not currently selling cars in North America, a spokesperson at the show said “circumstances look good” for a U.S. introduction in the near future.

One of the most anticipated NAIAS events was General Motors’ (GM, Detroit, Mich.) reintroduction of its classic Chevrolet Corvette Stingray badge. The 2014 Stingray (shown with an earlier incarnation at top left in photo) features a carbon fiber composite roof and hood molded by Plasan Carbon Composites (Bennington, Vt.). Get the Stingray roof/hood production story in CT’s sister magazine, High-Performance Composites (HPC March 2013, p. 42, or visit

Billed as the “world’s first high-performance electric pickup truck,” VIA Motors’ (Orem, Utah) VTRUX, is actually a concept hybrid pickup built on GM’s Chevy Silverado chassis. VIA, whose chairman, Bob Lutz, is a former GM vice chairman, has raised more than $5 million and has a business plan to produce this and other extended-range electric vehicles (E-REVs) by modifying OEM trucks, vans and SUVs. The company purchases basic vehicles from GM and couples the gas powertrain to an electric drive.

After beta testing its vehicles with fleet customers, VIA plans to sell directly to fleets under the VTRUX brand name. The truck at the show featured SMC body panels, but the company representative at the show could not say whether the body panels on VIA’s first projected commercial vehicles would be composites or metal.

Smart (Böblingen, Germany), part of Stuttgart, Germany-based Daimler AG, introduced its third-generation Fortwo electric car, which will go on sale in North America by the second quarter of 2013. The third-generation model includes a more powerful electric motor and sports a new lithium-ion battery pack, which increases the vehicle’s range to 140 km/87 miles.

At a press event held during the show, executives with Johnson Controls (Plymouth, Mich.) discussed trends in seating, highlighting the company’s new Gen 3 Synergy seating. Frame components of the Synergy Seat are constructed of natural fiber-reinforced composites, which replace steel. The company said it expects the use of composites in seating and interiors in general to become a trend that will further reduce vehicle weight and improve fuel efficiency.