Chicago Auto Show 2008: Riding The Hybrid Wave

Chicago (IL) - If you haven't visited a North American Auto Show in recent years, you'd be surprised to see how much these shows have changed: The dominating topic at the Chicago Auto Show 2008 are hybrid drivetrains and other technologies that make our cars more efficient. Join us for a walk around the show floor to see what manufacturers are offering today and what we can expect for the future.

Remember when Toyota launched its first hybrid, the first-generation Prius? Back then, in 1997, few of us took this concept serious. Gas prices here in the US were around $1 per gallon and public discussions global warming as well as green house gas emission concerns were squeezed into the briefly noted column of newspapers. It's a different story today.

Walk around the Chicago Auto Show show floor and it is apparent how important energy consumption has become to manufacturers. Going green is the dominating topic in Chicago. Well, sort of. The other trend of course are massive vehicles with more than enough horsepower for three or four cars. Interestingly enough, the organizers of the show - which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year - has some historic vehicles on display. One of them being claimed to be the origin of today's gas-guzzling SUVs.

The 1909 Holsman pictured (built from 1903 - 1910) was described as a "motor buggy" that could be driven across poor roads thanks to its high clearance. The car had a 12.8 hp engine and was sold for $675 at the time.

Surely we know what the SUV has become and we are well aware of the monsters that are travelling on our roads today. Next to some innovative concepts we will show you on the following pages, we could not help but also highlight two of the most extreme SUVs on the show floor in Chicago:

The International MXT is actually the medium "SUV" the company offers (there's also the smaller RXT and the larger CXT). The 8-ft wide and 7.7-ft high pick-up runs on a 300 hp V8 diesel engine. Prices start at $89,500.

Ford was one of the few manufacturers that completely missed the green train in Chicago. The company puts its new F-150 trucks into the spotlight instead. With the exception of some tanks shown by the U.S. Army, this Alton MFG "XUV" is based on the Ford F-650 chassis, runs on a 7.2-liter, turbocharged 6-cylinder Caterpillar C7 diesel engine with 370 hp (and a fuel consumption rating of 20.5 gallons per hour) sucking gas out of a 45 gallon tank. It can be yours if you purchase the F-650 base for about $67,000 and the customized body for about $122,000.

Let's look at a few more reasonable cars. We'll start with Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and VW.


Audi, of course, has its brand new A5 series, the new A4 and the R8 supercar (just the 4.2 liter V8 model) on display.

Promoting lowering gas consumption does not really appear to be a priority for Audi in Chicago. However, in a corner, the company shows its sport utility Q7 with a 3.0 liter TDI (diesel) engine. This 240 hp engine has been available in Europe since the launch of the SUV and will make its US debut later this year in the Q7 and VW's Touareg.


No hybrids here either, not even the H7 hydrogen 7-series is on display. Instead, BMW shows the X5 "xDrive35D" with a 3-liter, 265 hp engine. The same engine will be available later this year in the 335d sedan. It wasn't much, but BMW came up with the fanciest name for its diesels "Advanced Diesel Efficient Dynamics" (this phrase has been used for some time in Germany).

And yes, the recently unveiled X6 is also in Chicago.


Mercedes-Benz cars are among the most powerful on the road today. If you want you can have more than 600 hp in an S-class sedan, more than 500 in an E-class and more than 450 hp in a C-class. But the company has been selling diesels for a while now in the U.S. in the E-, ML-, GL- and R-class. This year, we'll get a cleaner "Bluetec" diesel in the E320 Bluetec with a 208 hp engine. Just make sure, you'll check your savings account when you order one of these - cars at dealers should cost around $60,000.

Here's the other end of the spectrum: The 451 hp C63.


Porsche unveiled the Cayenne GTS in Chicago, not because it is especially fuel-efficient (what do you expect from a 4.5-liter V8 with 405 hp anyway?), but because nearly half of its sales in the Chicago region are SUVs. The upcoming Cayenne hybrid (and the Panamera sedan hybrid) were not on display, but Porsche told journalists that this model is on track and will be released in the near future. (Read our interview with Porsche about the Cayenne hybrid on Monday).

The hybrid promises to get a mileage rating in the mid 20s, up about 30% from other Cayennes. Porsche said that this hybrid (possibly using a 46 hp electric motor) will retain typical Porsche characteristics, which usually include exhaust note, strong acceleration and braking capability and a high-revving engine, according to company officials. Just don't expect to get 20 mpg when you ask for those characteristics.


As mentioned before, the 3.0 TDI engine will also be available in the Touareg SUV this year. But TDI's, which really have started the diesel craze in Europe aren't coming to the U.S. as quickly as we would hope. For example, the Passat sedan will not get a diesel anytime soon.

At least, the TDI is returning to the Jetta. As in the past, this time, it is a 2.0-liter diesel with 140 hp, up from a 1.9-liter (105 hp) in the previous generation. That is good news, but we are still one generation behind, as VW not only offers a 140 hp 2.0 liter diesel in Europe, but also a 170 hp version.

The 140 hp "clean diesel" will also be offered in the Jetta station wagon, which not only looks like a Rabbit in the front, but is actually sold as a VW Golf (Rabbit) Variant (station wagon) in Europe.


Honda appears to have lost touch with the leading hybrid manufacturers and its Chicago display isn't exactly what you would call stunning. Next to the Civic hybrid, there is the $25,000 Civic CNG (uses natural gas as energy source) as well as the CR-Z, which shaped like a modern CRX.

Honda describes this vehicle as a sport hybrid that delivers "thrilling performance". The car was first shown at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show. No further details were announced in Chicago, but we are looking forward to seeing this new CRX on our streets. Honda plans to introduce the car sometime next year in Japan.

The Honda FCV fuel cell vehicles as well as the upcoming Accord diesel are not in Chicago.


Hyundai has a couple interesting products at the show. First, there is the i-Blue fuel cell vehicle, which follows the current crossover trend and is a first sign of Hyundai's fuel cell ideas for the next decade: The company said that it plans to be offering fuel cell cars sometime between 2010 and 2020.

The i-Blue has a 136 hp engine and is equipped with a 31-gallon tank for hydrogen for a range of about 233 miles. Technical highlights of the car include a hologram HUD.

Closer to a release is Hyundai's Genesis luxury sedan, which is not quite what you would call fuel-efficient, but noteworthy nevertheless, as it is a good example of excessive horsepower on one side of the product lineup greenish technologies on the other. The Genesis goes head-to-head the biggest and best in the industry, including Lexus' LS, BMW's 7-series and Mercedes' S-class. The car will be available with a 375 hp V8 engine. Hyundai also plans to be offering a Genesis coupe "with more than 300 hp".


If you are specifically looking for hybrids or diesels at the Nissan booth, you are in the wrong place. We were a bit surprised that even the Altima hybrid was missing, let alone the Maxima diesel, which is now scheduled to come to the U.S. in 2010, we were told.

But then, there's probably a better reason to visit Nissan anyway. Yes, the 2009 GT-R is there.

I shouldn't forget to mention Nissan's Forum concept, an interesting take at the traditional minivan, which allows soccer moms to ride a bit more in style. There is no information on the Forum's drivetrain or when the van may become available.


Nothing new here (I'll skip the new Evolution and the new Eclipse), but the company's Concept RA sports car still looks exciting to us. The prototype is based on a 2.2-liter common rail diesel with 204 hp. And we still don't know whether Mitsubishi will build it or not. Keep your fingers crossed.


Lexus has become the benchmark for luxury car makers when it comes to hybrid technology. Not only has the company put a hybrid engine in most of its cars (RX SUV, GS sedan, LS sedan), it is selling lots of those hybrids as well. An industry source told us that Lexus is selling about 20 times more LS hybrid sedans than planned - about 2000 per month. Keep in mind that this car has a base price of more than $104,000.

There is nothing new at the Lexus booth about hybrids, but enthusiasts may actually find a special IS-F interesting: Lexus has a stealth black version of the 414 hp sports sedan on display. It's nice enough to justify at least a limited edition IS-F we think.


It's just a matter of time until Toyota will redesign its company logo and put a tree in the middle of it. No question, Toyota is the green champion these days and the company exploits the current awareness for environmentally friendly materials and products more than anyone else in Chicago.

As you walk over to Toyota, you are told that all floors, turn tables and signage are made from recycled (and recyclable) materials. The carpet is protected with a thin layer of recyclable plastic; after the show, it will be sold to rental property owners, Toyota said. The LED walls include 52% of recycled content and are completely recyclable. The fabric panels are made from post-industrial and post-consumer content using non-toxic ink, says the company.

Toyota's hybrid cars are well known and there appears to be very little new at the booth - you'll find all the firm's hybrids, including the Camry and the Highlander versions.

Among all those fuel-efficient vehicles, it's easy to miss the more interesting cars: The company has a Prius plug-in hybrid on display. Compared to the regular Prius, the "PEHV" (plug in hybrid vehicle) has a second nickel-metal hydride battery which enables the car to stay longer in pure electric mode.

A new prototype hybrid vehicle is the A-Bat, which hints to Toyota's SUV future. Intended for suburban use, the pick-up has a 4-cylinder gas engine as its main drivetrain, which is promised to deliver "excellent fuel economy" thanks to an overall "lightweight" package of the car. There was no information on a possible production of the A-Bat.

It may surprise some that Toyota not only has hybrids, but a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as well. One of the Highlander fuel cell SUVs is in Chicago and a model shows how the technology is integrated into the car. The hydrogen tanks are placed in the trunk and right below the back seat.

Taken to the extreme, the 1/x concept shows the possibilities of going green. A small engine is combined with a bio-plastic roof, plug-in electric connection and net seats.


Ford is certainly a disappointment this year. If you ask about fuel efficiency, you are most likely pointed to the Escape Hybrid, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid and perhaps the new Focus.

More interesting, from the perspective of an enthusiast and geek is perhaps the also already available Shelby GT500 KR, which was the design foundation for the next Knight Rider TV series.

General Motors

If you are sick of driving that Prius and finally want that big car back and not feel guilty about it, GM wants your business.

The company's big SUVs share a 6.0 liter V8 hybrid engine with 332 hp.

In Hollywood, you'll probably choose the Cadillac Escalade hybrid. No worries, there are enough hybrid badges.

Yes, you guessed it, this Chevrolet Tahoe is a hybrid as well.

The same engine is available for the GMC Yukon and the GMC Sierra pickup. GM claims that it is 40% more fuel-efficient than the non hybrid Sierra.

The Denali XT is a full-size pick-up prototype, designed by GM Australia and also based on a 325 hp hybrid powerplant using a 4.9 liter V8 engine. Similar to Toyota's A-Bat, GM said that it is a lightweight construction, adding to the fuel-efficiency. Additionally, the Denali XT also supports E85 as energy source.

By the way, the HHR retro mobile is now also available with E85 capability.

The Saturn branch is finally beginning to sell the Astra (built by Opel in Germany) and is offering two hybrids. Both the Vue SUV and the Aura sedan will use a 164 hp version using a 4-cylinder gas engine. The same engine is also used in the Chevrolet Malibu hybrid.

On the fuel cell side, GM shows the Cadillac Provoq, which made its debut at this year's Consumer Electronics Show as well as a fuel cell-powered Chevrolet Equinox. The all-electric Chevrolet Volt is not on display. The Provoq has a 95 hp AC motor in the front as well as two 54 hp AC motors in the back. Cadillac says the car has a range of about 300 miles.

Of course, all the big engine cars are in Chicago as well. Most noteworthy for enthusiasts are the upcoming Chevrolet Camaro, the 620+ hp Corvette ZR-1 as well as the 550+ hp Cadillac CTS-V.


Chrysler's main attraction in Chicago has little to do with fuel efficiency. All buzz surrounds the 425 hp Dodge Challenger SRT-8 (sorry, we couldn't help mentioning it here).

A leftover from the marriage with Daimler has brought the Dodge RAM a "clean" diesel: This truck actually carries the Bluetec label.

Both the Chrysler Aspen and the Dodge Durango get Hemi hybrids. Chrysler's 340 hp Hemi engine is actually combined with electric motors to generate about 385 hp, according to the manufacturer. At least in the city, this hybrid consumes about 40% less gas than the regular Hemi, says Chrysler. Both the Dodge and the Chrysler will be available in Fall.

Not really new, but still one of Chrysler's best designed prototypes: The all-electric four-door Zeo concept promises a range of about 250 miles for driving enthusiasts.

The EcoVoyager made its debut in Detroit earlier this year. It is Chrysler's most significant fuel cell concept so far. The company claims the 268 hp car has a range of about 300 miles.

Not a green engine, but at least green color: Jeep's Renegade concept.


Hummer has a tough time promoting its cars in a time where you simply have to have a car that can be called fuel efficient. And for Hummer that obviously means that its cars have to get smaller. The HX concept was shown first at the Detroit show and is a Jeep Wrangler-sized SUV with the typical Hummer face.

The HX has a 3.6 liter V6 under the hood and supports E85. Also, Hummer will bring diesel engines to the H2 and H3.