Automakers put focus on hybrids, alternative fuels


BANGKOK, Thailand — The 28th annual Bangkok International Motor Show was certainly glitzy enough.

Limousines jammed the entry drive. Uniformed caterers bustled about to a fanfare of specially scored theme music. And Miss Motor Show 2007 and runners-up one through four scurried after dignitaries as they toured titanic exhibits, including a multimillion-dollar reader board by Chevrolet and Daimler-Benz’s electronic waterfall-like display that cascaded an unending stream of words in English and Thai.

But the lasting impression was not glitz but green.

Themed “Driving Through Nature” and set against the backdrop of the Thai royal family’s long-standing commitment to environmental concerns as well as development, the show earlier this month was a carefully calibrated convergence of regional and international greening trends.

The world’s major automakers definitely rose to the occasion, unveiling alternative fuel cars and high-tech interactive displays focusing on fuel efficiency and alternatives to petroleum.

Volvo’s emphasis was on its vaunted safety; its new sporty cars, especially the C-30; and its alternative-fuel capabilities (its diesel lineup, for example, is biodiesel-capable).

Toyota offered a display promoting “Inspired Innovation for Smart Living” and featuring a radical hybrid concept car. Toyota’s regular line now offers not only the Prius, but also Camry and Highlander hybrid models.

Lexus, Toyota’s cousin, presented a performance depicting a chrysalis pupa becoming a butterfly with skilled acrobats, suspended from the ceiling by cables, to promote the world premiere of the Lexus RX 400H, the world’s first production hybrid luxury car. The price tag for the Lexus was spendy, even by luxury standards: more than $175,000 by current currency conversion.

Honda presented a program concentrating on its history, featuring the 1965 Richie Ginther Mexican Grand Prix winning car as well as the recent Jenson Boulton Hungarian Grand Prix ’06 first-prize winner. The brand also touted its robot technology and a new “personal”-size production corporate jet, claimed to be the fastest, most fuel-efficient plane in its class.

Daimler-Benz, despite its struggles with Chrysler, showed no signs of weakness in Thailand. For many years, the luxury brand of choice among the Thai affluent, the marque has been losing ground of late to BMW.

Their presentation was well over the top with dozens of dancers superlatively choreographed and an outrageous pair of acrobats intermingling with each other as they hung from a trapeze. The Benz message was about new safety technology, various new models including the S300L, the CL class and its “Active Body Central Suspension System.” But it also showcased the natural gas-powered E200 NGT, which the Thai director of sales described as locally manufactured.

Chevrolet unveiled the Captiva, the first diesel-powered Chevrolet sport utility vehicle developed for the European market. Bold, sleek and sporty, it features a 2.4-liter, in-line four-cylinder engine.

Mazda displayed the MX-5 roadster with retractable hardtop.

Ford also echoed the show’s theme, presenting its extensive lineup that included “E20 Capable” fuel systems. (E20 refers to the percentage of ethanol that can be used.)

Ford strongly supports Thailand’s national gasohol policy and is committed to offering all future flex-fuel models with a minimum of E10 capability. The ASEAN market Focus and Escape models are currently E20-compatible. Dave Alden, Ford’s vice president for Asia Pacific and ASEAN markets, said Ford is contemplating a $1 billion investment in the region, including Thailand, which has the largest automotive market in Southeast Asia and serves as the region’s production hub.

Interestingly, the days of intense Bangkok smog, surgeon-masked Tuk-Tuk drivers and heavily congested roads seem to be passing. Most Thai taxis and many private passenger car owners have opted to spend about $1,000 per car to convert their vehicles to burn ethanol or compressed natural gas. Despite its recent political turbulence, Thailand’s aggressive energy and environmental policies seem to be gaining traction.

Internationally, redoubled attention to global warming is turning up the heat on major automakers to find environmentally responsible alternatives. And this may not be simple posturing.

Coupled with industry and market initiatives, the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling holding the Environmental Protection Agency responsible for development of greenhouse gas emissions regulation can be expected to add some fuel to the U.S. automakers’ fire to develop independent standards and road maps — before they’re thrust upon them by individual states, the new Congress or the need to compete internationally.

Only time will tell, but this year’s Bangkok International Motor Show was encouraging in its bold display of high-tech prowess and eco-friendly vision. Apart from all the frenzied Vegas-style glamour, it may very well come to represent a marketing and manufacturing landmark. It’s a high-tech, green-conscious motor-head’s dream.

Evan McMullen is proprietor of Cosmopolitan Motors in Seattle.

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