Saturday, April 3, 2010

I Just Got My Car Greenwashed

I went to press day at the NY International Auto Show with my brother, who gets the passes as part of his business, which is cars. He stores classics, exotics, and just plain expensive at Bridgehampton Motoring Club and brokers these cars at SpecialtyCarSource. He and I have been arging about cars since we were boys sharing a room. I liked exotics, he liked muscle. Then we grew up. Now he likes all things expensive, sexy, powerful and I must admit to being more utilitarian in my car choices. The great thing about a show like this is, if you are looking to buy a car, you can sit in almost every make and model in one place. The sad thing about a show like this is that you can see in one swoop how our dedication to the over-powered, gas guzzling automobile has not changed at all.

I would say that there were two major themes at this year's presentation of the latest offerings by a world of automobile manufacturers: green lip service and nostalgia to the future.

I have to hand it to Chrysler (or whatever they are calling themselves since Fiat purchased the ailing company), they just put it right out there. Case in point is the Eco Style car -an ordinary Chrysler 300, but styled with cork, bamboo, and jute in natural colors! It still sports a 5.7 liter HEMI engine. We all know there's not much style in fuel efficiency. So top award goes to Chrysler for just calling it like it is -all style, no substance.
Put it on the plate baby.

You can see here the natural colors and, uh, cork trimmed door pocket.

I will give them props for their nostalgia car, the Dodge Challenger. Of the three American muscle cars, the Challenger seemed roomy, everyday drivable and I love the color -magenta sparkle.

Never before have I seen so many windmills, trees, flowers and blue sky backing up the image of the car manufacturers.

Nature has always been the backdrop of our automotive advertising: freedom, escape, the open road leads you to paradise and from the chaos of the wilderness. But this goes past that into greenwashing your psyche, boldly telling the customer that what they are buying is the clean, green future- not the same old gas burner on four wheels, but it really just is.

Almost every company was touting their hybrids, although most did not go as far as listing the mpg of their hybrid cars. That's because many of the new hybrids are designed to appeal to the conscience of the wealthy, not the average person's wallet or any sense of efficiency. Take the BMW 750i Active Hybrid, for example. Active is right at 455 hp, but nowhere is its fuel efficiency -the essence of a hybrid, listed.
I don't mean to single out BMW, because they all were doing it. In fact, when I did find mpg numbers for V8 powered cars, they were often higher than in previous years. This is because they are trying to raise their CAFE numbers, and why not up their averages by raising the low end. So we see Ford F150s getting 18/24 instead of 14/18 and large Mercedes getting the same.

The dash of a large Mercedes hybrid. Nostalgia to the Future -the classic look of 50's auto interior with the conscience clearing 'hybrid' applied front and center dash.

As for the little cars, they seem to be eking out all they can. I handily recall Honda CRXs getting 50 mpg in the late 80s, but there appears to be a new Civic hybrid coming that gets 42 mpg! Fiat had two new tiny cars that were plastered with eco this and that badges, but no mention of actual mpg anywhere. Not far away were the tiny two-seat SMART cars, getting what you won't believe -only 33/41! Criminy, I can get 37 highway in a four seat Corolla.

I think Toyota is right to call all this the "darker side of green." Although I could barely parse what this really meant in relation to their new Lexus hybrid, the CT300h.

They say it delivers extraordinary fuel efficiency, so why not tell us what that is? Nimble, yes.

Many of the car companies had 'zero emissions' concept cars, little more than husks of real cars that claim to run solely on batteries or with hydrogen fuel cells. They tend to look very similar to current small hatchbacks but with some futuristic looking touches to let us know that's where we're headed despite the overall bland package.

Nissan went as far as calling their concept 'Leaf,' as in turning over a new one, I suppose, because I cannot imagine that their car produces oxygen while consuming CO2 -now there's a concept.

I think this Mercedes summed up the Auto Show. Its 50% engine compartment, 25% passenger, 25% luggage. It has gullwing style doors like their mid-century models. It's sexy, cool, retro, and has little redeeming value.

I feel with some certainty that we have reached peak car design. Cars have essentially been the same for 20 years, with little design shifts this way or that. Some companies are looking back for their inspiration, but this just reinforces the sense that they do not know where to go, that the functionality of the personal automobile has not changed enough to allow the form to change in any significant way. Much of the efforts in car design over the last 20 years have been in increased horsepower and to some degree, safety from that same horsepower.

Millions, maybe billions of people depend on automobiles as an everyday tool to accomplish whatever needs to be accomplished. The image of the automobile has sunken so deep into our psyche that we barely notice its pure functionality, depending instead on its image to serve our ego. I, for one, am still waiting for the better designed tool for everyday use. I don't think I am alone in this.

What would an electric-powered, Apple car look like for city dwellers? The iCar. Couldn't VW make a small pick-up or van with a diesel-electric hybrid so that I could have a work vehicle that's using less instead of more? I think they could.

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