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Hybrids steal spotlight at Detroit auto show

The hybrid war is bursting into overdrive.

Three global automotive powerhouses introduced new hybrid cars yesterday at the North American International Auto Show as car companies battle for green leadership and strive to meet stringent new fuel economy and emission requirements later this decade.

Toyota Motor Corp., which claimed hybrid leadership in the decade just ended with its Prius sedan, said it plans to expand the Prius into a family of vehicles with cars both smaller and larger than its flagship hybrid.

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The Japan-based company unveiled a concept car called the FT-CH, a vehicle about 500 millimetres shorter than the Prius that is aimed at younger buyers and is all but certain to become a model on the road within three years. (Its name stands for Future Toyota-compact hybrid.)

Drivers may need a less expensive hybrid than the Prius, Yoshi Inaba, chief executive officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA, acknowledged, but said it's far too early to tell what the price might be for the FT-CH. The Prius starts at $27,500 in Canada.

The Prius and Toyota's other hybrids sold in Canada and the U.S. are generating a profit, said Mr. Inaba, Toyota's highest ranking executive in North America. "This is the third generation [Prius]we are in and every time we come up with a newer version, then we see improvements on profit."

Volkswagen AG said its first hybrid model will be on the road this spring. The German auto maker also unveiled a concept car code-named the New Compact Coupe that combines a hybrid motor with a turbocharged, 1.4-litre engine.

That was followed by the new CR-Z from Honda Motor Co. Ltd., a hybrid sports coupe that will go on sale in the U.S. market this summer.

The hybrid version of Ford Motor Co.'s Fusion sedan won car of the year honours at the annual Detroit show.

"I think we'll see a predominance of hybrids on the road by 2020," said Ted Robertson, chief technical officer and executive vice-president of new production creation for Magna International Inc.

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The Canadian auto parts giant, which has a booth at the show, was sporting federal Industry Minister Tony Clement and other politicians to a drive in the battery-powered Focus compact that Magna developed for Ford.

Electric vehicles are also moving to the forefront, which is where they were 100 years ago when the auto industry was just springing to life.

A 1922 model made by Detroit Electric Car Co. is on display outside the show. About 12,000 were made between 1907 and 1939 before another electric development made them obsolete - the arrival of the electric starter. The 1922 model cost $2,985 (U.S.).

The batteries alone for the new generation of electric vehicles now cost almost three times that amount at $8,000, industry sources estimate.

Mr. Robertson said the battery is the most expensive item, but the costs of all the components in electric vehicles need to come down to make them commercially viable.

The abundance of hybrid, electric and other environmentally friendly vehicles shows the industry believes it must meet stringent fuel economy goals through technology and not by convincing Americans to switch en masse to smaller vehicles, said industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers, president of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc. of Richmond Hill, Ont.

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"The vehicle companies believe Americans won't compromise on the size of their vehicles," Mr. DesRosiers said.

Nonetheless, several auto makers showed off smaller vehicles with traditional internal combustion engines, including Ford with its redesigned Focus compact, and General Motors Co. with the GMC Granite concept, a small crossover vehicle about 600 millimetres shorter than its GMC Acadia.

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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