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After last year’s pathetic edition of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the premier American car show is making an attempt to get with the times by adding Electric Avenue, presented by the Dow Chemical Company.

The area will have electric cars from major manufacturers on display, plus information from the suppliers and universities developing the new technologies found in the cars. There will even be a track where attendees can take electric cars for a test drive. The indoor course “winds through natural surroundings,” says the NAIAS web site, which sounds suspiciously like the horrid little track in the basement that they had last year.

I mentioned that the Mitsubishi iMiEV was one of the most popular cars to test drive on the basement track at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show. The other was GM’s Chevy Equinox SUV powered by hydrogen fuel cells. I waited my for turn at the wheel and did a few 10-mph laps with a GM rep in the passenger seat to fill me in on the technology.

The most notable thing was that the hydrogen-powered motor was as quiet as an EV, and drove like an EV, since it basically is an EV being powered by hydrogen rather than energy stored in, say, lead-acid batteries. GM has a fleet of these Equinox SUVs on the roads right now, and customers have asked engineers to leave in the “whine” on acceleration, rather than making the vehicle perfectly silent.

Though I couldn’t test it on the 700 feet of impromptu track inside the Cobo Center, the Equinox can do 0-60 in about 12 seconds, which is similar to a Prius. The hydrogen fuel generates zero emissions, and the current generation of the technology operates without any issues from -5 degrees Fahrenheit to 113 degrees. The next generation should be usable in “normal car range,” from -40 to 130 degrees.

GM has the largest fuel cell fleet in the world being tested by consumers right now. What we need is enough solid information from GM and its testers to break the chicken-or-the-egg fuel cell impasse that we’re at now: no one wants to build the cars without fueling stations in place, and no one wants to install the fueling stations without the cars.

Image courtesy of GM.

iMiev in the Basement

After a couple manufacturers pulled out of the 2009 Detroit Auto Show at the last minute and the floorplan was rejiggered, there was a large, empty space leftover in the basement of the Cobo Center. What to do with it? I know! Let’s bring in trees, tulips, and shrubberies, and have alternative-fuel vehicles available for test drives!

And so I found myself in line late in the afternoon, waiting to drive the Mitsubishi iMiev. Mitsu didn’t have a booth at the show, so I didn’t think I’d get to see this little EV in person. I was happy to be wrong. It was one of the most popular vehicles to test at the show, as most of the other vehicles were new hybrid models like the Cadillac Escalade. We’ve all driven a hybrid by now, right? Journalists are so jaded.

I lugged my press-kit-filled tote bag to the driver’s side, only to find it wasn’t the driver’s side. The car isn’t manufacturered for use in the States, so it’s right-hand-drive, Japan-style. Luckily, the car is tiny, so I didn’t have far to walk to correct my mistake. Mitsubishi PR guy Moe took the passenger seat to ride along with me and answer my questions. Moe is a fairly tall guy, and he didn’t look too uncomfortable inside the car. I’m only 5′ 4″, and I fit behind the wheel just fine.

We tootled about the smooth cement track for three or four laps. Moe pointed out that there is an Economy mode that slows the starts and is 13% more efficient than regular Drive, and a Boost mode for getting up hills that makes use of regenerated braking power. The little iMiev isn’t fast by anyone’s standards, but it was hard to gauge its usefulness in the real world when I was confined to 700 feet of basement track and a maximum 10 mph.

Moe said the iMiev project started in 2004, and that a fleet of the cars is being tested worldwide, with the U.S. being a proving ground for cold-weather use. He said he’s driven the iMiev on the highway without fearing for his life or being blown all over the road. The batteries help give the little car some weight, he said; he found the gasoline-powered version of the car scarier than the EV on the highway.

The interior was pretty Spartan, with few bells and whistles. But the rear seats can fold down for extra cargo space, which is nice as long as whatever you’re loading in the back is large and airy, like, say, a balloon bouquet. Anything heavier is going to have a noticeable effect on the little motor’s get-up-and-go.

Image by me. Moe is in the passenger seat on the far side of the car.

With nine manufacturers out of the picture, I think it’s safe to say we shouldn’t expect much from the 2009 North American International Auto Show, which opens to the press January 11.

While Good Green Cars readers might not mind that Ferrari has pulled out of the Detroit show, you might find it interesting that Nissan/Infiniti has also decided not to bring any cars, and has even asked local dealers not to put up a display. The manufacturer has a hybrid program and plans to introduce electric cars to Oregon in the near-ish future. I was hoping to see those EVs, at least in prototype form, in Detroit this year. I also don’t see Mitsubishi on the press conference schedule, which means no up-close-and-personal time with the adorable iMiev.

What we can expect to see are the new Ford Fusion hybrid, the new Honda Insight, and the new Toyota Prius, all of which have a bunch of buzz surrounding them. Ford is also expected to talk about — but not have on hand — the new EVs it plans to build. I’m sure Chevy will be bringing the latest incarnation of the 2011 Volt PHEV, and that Chrysler will have its lineup of potential EVs on display.

Keep this blog bookmarked for the next week or so, as I report firsthand on the green goings-on in Detroit.

Mitsubishi announced this week that it will bring a fleet of its i MiEV electric cars to New Zealand in February 2009. Local and national government officials will take turns driving the cars to spur discussion of infrastructure, marketing, and presumably some kind of incentive for bringing the cars to the good people of New Zealand in the future.

Why New Zealand, you ask? Why not the U.S. or some other nation tiring of the flucuation in oil prices? Two reasons, one of which is dead simple: Kiwis drive on the left side of the road, just like they do in Japan. The cars are built in Japan, and will be introduced first to the Japanese market, so there aren’t any adjustments to be made. The steering wheel is already in the right place.

The second reason is Mitsubishi Motors’ partner in the tour, state-owned Meridian Energy. Not only is it New Zealand’s largest energy provider, but 100% of that energy comes from renewable sources, like hydroelectric dams and wind farms. That means in New Zealand, the i MiEV can be a zero-emissions car coming and going.