Motor City poster boy Lutz touts horsepower — and hybrids

January 18, 2013

DETROIT – Is Bob Lutz the poster boy for the 2013 Detroit auto show?

This year’s event, like Lutz, seems like a throwback to an earlier era. And, like Lutz, is rife with contradiction.

Where Detroit shows in recent years have exhibited a heavy green theme, electric and hybrid vehicles seem almost like an afterthought at this year’s event – a reflection perhaps of the public’s ambivalence toward green cars.

In an abrupt departure, this year’s event instead showcases a clutch of new luxury and performance models that appear to fly in the face of energy and environmental conservation.

If you look hard enough, however, you can still find the odd electric vehicle on a few show stands, including one being promoted by Lutz.

You remember the Motor City’s master showman. When he was president of Chrysler, Lutz, a former Marine fighter pilot and champion of the Dodge Viper muscle car, once drove a new Jeep Grand Cherokee through a trick plate glass wall at Detroit’s Cobo Center as part of an early-Nineties auto show publicity stunt.

Then, as vice chairman of General Motors , Lutz did a volte-face and spearheaded the development of GM’s first extended-range hybrid electric car, the Chevy Volt.

This is the same guy who famously told reporters in 2008 that “global warming is a total crock of s–t.” In other words, Lutz was for global warming before he was against it. Or vice-versa.

At this week’s Detroit show media preview, Lutz, a month shy of his 81st birthday and newly retired as a GM consultant, hedged all bets with not one, but two appearances for two small startups.

One was to trumpet VIA Motors’ newly electrified version of the big Cadillac Escalade, GM’s most expensive – and thirstiest – sport-utility vehicle. The other, from VL Automotive, was to show off a gussied-up $180,000 derivative of the Fisker Karma, with its hybrid guts ripped out and replaced with a ginormous 638-horsepower V8 engine from the Chevy Corvette.

Lutz, of course, was not the only practitioner of automotive ambivalence in Detroit.

GM displayed the latest edition of the Corvette, with a massive 6.2-liter V8 stuffed under the hood, just a stone’s throw from the new Cadillac ELR, a sporty $60,000-plus sibling of the Volt hybrid.

On the other side of Cobo, crosstown rival Ford Motor likewise straddled both sides of the fast-versus-frugal conversation, touting its ever-expanding portfolio of plug-in vehicles while teasing the next-generation F-series pickup with a monster truck dubbed Atlas (prompting any number of lame Ayn Rand jokes from media wags).

Speaking of bet-hedging, as Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn stoutly defended his company’s chancy $5-billion bet on batteries and electric cars – and announced a stunning $6,000 price cut on the slow-selling Leaf EV – the automaker unveiled a concept sport-utility vehicle with a new hybrid system that could find its way into several future Nissan models.

It wasn’t that long ago that Ghosn insisted pure EVs made so much more sense for Nissan than Toyota’s hybrid strategy. Now, it seems, not so much.

Of all the foreign brands at the show, Honda – as usual – followed its own unique script, but one that seemed remarkably consistent with past pronouncements.

Targeting the current consumer rage for crossovers with a dash of climate consciousness, Honda managed to combine both in a single concept – an “urban SUV” derivative of its next-generation Fit subcompact.

Across the aisle, Honda’s premium Acura brand – which last year passed both Cadillac and Lincoln in U.S. luxury-car sales – showed a near-production version of its 2015 NSX sports car.

And how does Honda define the “sports car” of the future? The ultra-lightweight, two-passenger NSX combines a small-displacement V6 engine and THREE electric motors, with all four wheels driven, so that it should provide excellent speed, acceleration and handling, with virtually no compromise in fuel economy and emissions control.

Knowing Lutz, he’s probably already trying to figure out how to fit a Corvette engine in the thing.

PHOTO: VIA’s Bob Lutz poses with one of the company’s full electric pick up trucks at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 14, 2013. REUTERS/James Fassinger

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