Apparently the electric car boom is over – for the time being, at least – before it really started. Someone needs to tell the politicians and the true believers.
You see, as U.S. President Barack Obama was proposing richer subsidies for EVs and their ilk in his country, the cognoscenti of the auto industry were gathered at the 82nd Geneva International Motor Show to celebrate the internal combustion engine in all its glory and guises – from frugal and efficient to excesses worthy of the Real Housewives of Los Angeles.
What happened to the EVs and their low-emission stepchildren, hybrids? They’ve been staples of the auto show circuit all over the world for at least half a decade. But not here. You could colour this Geneva show many different shades, but EV “green” was not one of them, with only one or two exceptions.
That doesn’t mean auto makers here big and small didn’t showcase nifty ideas about how to juice fuel economy and lower emissions. Not at all. From Mazda to Ford to Honda to Volvo to Peugeot and more, we saw downsized and maximized gasoline and diesel engines, stand after stand in the stifling Palexpo Exhibition Centre beside the airport.
The nifty new Ford B-Max, which CEO Alan Mulally said will eventually go on sale in North America, will be sold here in Europe with a three-cylinder, 1.0-litre EcoBoost turbo gas engine. Honda showed a 1.6-litre diesel for the European CR-V, which Honda Canada should offer, and if General Motors buys the remaining 93 per cent of Peugeot we might just hope to see the ailing French automaker’s 1.0- and 1.2-litre three-cylinder powerplants now going into the Peugeot 208.
Car company after car company talked up the enormous potential of the internal combustion. Klaus Draeger, BMW's head of research and development, told reporters that car companies are getting more realistic about the outlook of the market by 2020.
“We think 10 to 15 per cent of all vehicles by 2020 will be electric,” he told just-auto.com, “but that leaves 90 per cent that will be a combination of internal combustion. There's been a little mismatch between the number of articles published on EVs versus conventional.”
Heresy? Five years ago in Frankfurt, yes. Back then, when the EV hype first began raging, all we heard at European car shows was the battery-car mantra. Doubters were dubbed nabobs of negativity. Yet here in Geneva, even as General Motors was accepting the European Car of The Year Award for the electrified Chevrolet Volt and its Opel sibling, the Ampera (after also winning North American Car of the Year in January), back at headquarters in Detroit, the world’s biggest auto maker was announcing a five-week shutdown of production. Not enough people want to buy the Volt despite its excellent design and range-anxiety-reducing on-board generator.
Here’s how Draeger summed up the EV reality: “Let's see how people buy our (electric) products. Let's bring the product to market, but keep the company profitable.” That from the head of the braintrust behind BMW’s massive, impressive and truly creative EV program.
Make no mistake, BMW is committed to electrics. The battery-powered i-Series city car is slated to go on sale at the end of next year. The marketplace will see some emission-free vehicles trickle into dealerships right across the board, in fact, and for one simple reason (and it’s not because consumers as a group are clamoring for them): politicians are in love with EVs. They are crafting regulations designed to give EV a boost, too. For instance, European Union regulations compel auto makers to reduce carbon dioxide output radically by 2020.
And yes, to be fair, the i-Series had a nice little space in Geneva, but its display was modest compared to the compelling showcase given the new 3-Series. More important to BMW’s future is the Mini brand, which allows the company to tap into buyers who want smaller, cleaner cars. If that’s not enough, BMW is developing a new line of front-drives that promise greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions.
The fact is, for at least the foreseeable future, EVs will sell in numbers more consistent with low-volume niche models and specialty cars – like the Bentleys, Ferraris, Maseratis revealed here, not to mention the top-of-the-range BMWs and Porsches. Electric cars, hybrids, and fuel cell cars? They were here, but mostly tucked away in corners, behind smaller cars like that nifty little Ford B-Max.