At Geneva’s enormous Palexpo convention center, it’s obvious we’re not in Detroit – there’s hardly a pickup truck in sight, and the wine and coffee are flowing freely. Reflecting Europe’s colorful collage of cultures, a vast variety of vehicles from hybrids to EVs to seven-figure super-sports cars are spinning on the turntables.
Europe is just beginning to discover hybrids – the roads teem with small cars and diesels, but Prii are still a fairly rare sight, at least here in Switzerland. From the looks of the lineup here at the Auto Salon, that’s about to change. Almost every maker has hybrids on offer, and Lexus, for one, is exhibiting only hybrids. Curiosities include Honda’s hydrogen fuel cell hybrid and Peugeot’s “hybrid air,” which combines an electric motor with a compressed-air propulsion system.
Plug-ins and pure EVs are not hard to find, and several automakers are giving them star billing. Of course, auto shows always emphasize the new and the exotic, and ironically, the green-garlanded electrified models are sharing the spotlight with a huge selection of gas-guzzling super-sports cars.
Some models combine both trendy concepts, such as the McLaren P1. The electric motor does help to keep CO2 emissions under 200 g/km, but its real raison d’etre is instantaneous throttle response throughout the rev range. Together with a 3.8 liter twin-turbo V8, it offers a combined output of 903 bhp, maximum torque of 900 Nm, and a top speed of 217 mph. At $1.2 million – cheap compared to some of the super vehicles on display here – the production run of 375 units is predicted to sell out quickly.
Audi is showing off its first PHEV, the A3 Sportback e-tron, which is scheduled to go on sale in Europe and the US in 2014. She’s a front-wheel drive parallel hybrid with a 1.4 liter modified TFSI engine, a 75 kW electric motor, an 8.8 kWh liquid-cooled battery and a 6-speed transmission. She can do 0-60 in 7.6 seconds, gets 157 MPGe, and boasts a top speed of 138 mph and an electric range of about 31 miles. Audi’s classic four rings slide aside to reveal the charging connection. The e-tron’s poorly-thought-out name illustrates the wide gulfs that still exist between European countries. Audi’s German-speaking marketing personnel apparently didn’t realize that etron has an unsavory meaning in French.
VW’s upcoming e-Golf could really shake up the European EV market, as the Golf, which comes in a dozen versions, has been Europe’s best selling car for years now. Alas, the electric model isn’t ready for prime time, and we were told that it will probably debut at the Frankfurt show in September.
While we wait for the main dish, VW has served up an electric full-size van concept, and the flashy XL1. This 12-foot-long two-seat spaceship draws stares for its hidden rear wheels and lack of wing mirrors, but those who examine the specs will find that this is perhaps the most fuel-efficient highway vehicle ever built. It has a tiny 0.8 liter two-cylinder turbodiesel engine (47 bhp), a 20 kW electric motor, a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, and a fuel tank about the size of a Big Gulp (2.6 gallons, actually). VW says the mileage is 261 MPGe, and electric range is 31 miles. And no, this isn’t just a concept. The company has confirmed that it will produce a limited run of 250 units starting at the end of 2013.
Smart is heavily pushing the electric angle, which is no surprise. The smart was originally conceived (by the same Swiss minds that brought us the Swatch) as an electrified car. Like the pop-art plastic watch that inspired it, the smart electric drive comes in a wide array of colors and trims. The basic version, starting around 25,000 euros, is the cheapest serious EV on the road, but some of the cherried-out models are anything but – one Brabus custom-tuned baby is going for over 50,000 euros.
Those are the big electric stories, but there are plenty of other plug-ins here in Geneva. Subaru, GM, Nissan, Fisker, Tesla, Volvo, Valmet, BMW, Renault, and Mitsubishi all have electrics on display (to name a few).