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Smaller cars, electrics zap muscle cars at the New York auto show

NEW YORK -- Visitors to this year's New York International Auto Show, kicking off today at the Javits Center, will take notice of a big change in theme from previous years -- more emphasis on smaller, European-style vehicles.

Past auto shows instead highlighted large sport utility vehicles, luxury sedans and modern versions of muscle cars, all boasting comfort, ease of handling and poor gas mileage. They're still here, but mainly stuffed in the back, carefully arranged alongside the hybrid-engine versions of the same vehicles.

For the 2010 show, the small car is taking center stage this weekend. To top it off, nearly every major automaker is showcasing a version of an ultra-low- or zero-emissions vehicle. And where these were once displayed as mere concept cars, the U.S., German and Japanese automakers now seem intent on finding a wider market niche for their new low-emissions offerings, from fully electric commuter vehicles to one car that runs entirely on household natural gas.

Lisa Drake, chief engineer at Ford, recently demonstrated one example of this gradually strengthening trend toward smaller, fuel-efficient cars -- Ford's 2011 Transit Connect, already a popular work van in Europe, with 600,000 sold there. This summer, the Transit Connect will be offered to commercial clients in the United States for the first time, but as a fully electric, plug-in, chargeable car, an option not available to European customers.

"The battery is actually underneath the car, where the fuel tank was," Drake explained. "You have all the same cargo volume as you had before, and you still have 1,000 pounds of payload with this vehicle."

The diesel-powered, manual-transmission version of the same vehicle enjoys brisk sales across the Atlantic, to a wide array of corporate customers but also to small businesses like flower shops or plumbing operations. Drake says Ford believes an electric version of this very European car will likewise do well in the United States, as it can run for 80 miles on a full battery that operators recharge overnight at existing stations, all for a fraction of the cost of a tank of gasoline.

Electrics get a plug

"At a lot of their depots where they do their own maintenance, they have 220-volt service, so they'll use that for charging the vehicle," said Drake. AT&T has expressed interest in purchasing it for use in repair calls, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is also said to be looking. Drake admitted that the U.S. Postal Service also seems intrigued, but she declined to go into detail.

Ford says it would gladly sell the Transit Connect to private customers if the interest were there, but for the time being, the company has no plans to market the car to broader driving public. But Ford is busy actively promoting its hybrid lineup here, including the Fusion Hybrid and the first-ever Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, which -- at 41 miles per gallon in city driving -- Ford believes will be "the most fuel efficient luxury sedan in America."

But Ford's competitors are pushing all electric vehicles to the mainstream, as evidenced by their prominent positioning at the companies' displays here.

Later this year, Nissan will roll out the Leaf to consumers in the United States, Europe and Japan. This all-electric car is said to have a range of 100 miles on a single charge. Nissan says the Leaf will be among the most affordable electric vehicles on the market, and the marketing push makes it clear the company is positioning this car as a revenue generator, and not simply for showcasing its green credentials.

Nearby, General Motors is showing off its much-anticipated 2011 Chevrolet Volt, a car that's powered with an all-electric engine that the company says "promises to re-invent the automobile." Volt runs for 40 miles on a single charge, while a gas-powered electric generator keeps the car moving beyond that range. General Motors says the Volt will go on sale toward the end of this year.

Mitsubishi is rolling out its own electric car, the i-MiEV, which can be 80 percent recharged using a special quick charger. And similar eco-friendly vehicles are scattered throughout, though the array of fuel sources targeted shows the industry is still unsure of which technology will end up on top.

For instance, Honda is here promoting a version of the 2010 Civic that runs entirely on natural gas. Honda says that future owners of the Civic NGV, assembled in Indiana and retailing for about $26,000, will be able to tap into their existing natural gas lines through a home fueling appliance. And Mazda representatives are here to show off an electric car with a internal battery recharger that can use either standard gasoline or hydrogen.

A market 'sorting itself out'

"Right now, the whole market is kind of sorting itself out as to what is going to become the next, real, true alternative-fuel vehicle, whether it's fuel cells, or hydrogen, or electric," said Mark Willett, a product specialist with Mazda. "Who knows which way the market is going to go?"

The Mazda Hydrogen RE Hybrid that Willett presented features a lightweight rotary engine that is used only to recharge the battery. Though Mazda is the only major automaker to still manufacture rotary-engine vehicles, the one on the RE Hybrid isn't connected to the drivetrain. Still, Willett said hydrogen works perfectly as a fuel for rotary engines and that Mazda would be well positioned to corner the market for hydrogen-powered cars, should that be the fuel choice that wins consumers' hearts.

"The rotary engine runs exceptionally well on hydrogen," said Willett. "We will be really well positioned to take advantage of that."

But until that time, Mazda is aggressively launching the Mazda 2, a tiny, fuel-sipping coupe that has been on sale in Australia, Japan and Europe since 2007 but is just now making its debut here.

The theme of greater fuel efficiency and engines that emit less greenhouse gases is so strong here that the luxury brands are also jumping in, even though their higher-earning customer base hardly needs to fret over rising gasoline prices.

BMW is proudly displaying its 2011 ActiveHybrid 7, a sporty sedan that accelerates to 60 miles per hour in less than five seconds and retails for $107,000. Not to be outdone, Lexus is displaying its HS 250h Hybrid, a sleek machine that boasts 35 miles per gallon in the city. The Japanese luxury brand's booth even invites auto enthusiasts to explore "the darker side of green."

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