Beyond GM’s Booth, Plugs Evade Limelight of Detroit Auto Show

By · January 15, 2015

2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid

2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid

The unveiling of the 200-mile Chevy Bolt, and new Chevy Volt, made a big splash at the 2015 Detroit auto show—although perhaps not as big as new high-horsepower models from Ford and Acura. The mere fact that a car can use grid-supplied energy no longer grabs headlines the way it did just a few years ago. Nonetheless, notable plug-ins from Hyundai, Honda, Audi, Volkswagen, and Mercedes could be found in Detroit.

Hyundai unveiled a plug-in hybrid version of the redesigned Sonata. The introduction of the PHEV later this year—along with a no-plug conventional Sonata hybrid—can be read as a way for Hyundai to catch up with full-size sedan plug-in hybrids from Ford and Honda. The Sonata, with its 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission and 9.8 kilowatt-hour battery pack, offers about 22 miles of all-electric range. That compares to the Ford Fusion Energi’s 21 miles EV range, and 13 miles provided by the Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid. (The plug-in Toyota Prius, a hatchback rather than a sedan, also provides 11 miles of range on the battery alone).

In this case, the Sonata’s specs are less important than the signal that every mainstream sedan will eventually come with a plug-in option. The field of conventional gas-electric hybrids—the ones that don’t offer plug-in capability—has grown to 50 models. As fuel efficiency standards continue to tighten, we suspect that many of these models will add plug-in hybrid variants, just as Fusion, Accord—and now Sonata—do today. The only outward distinction between Sonata models with or without a plug is the plug-in hybrid’s unique grille and a charge port on the front driver's side.

More Plug-ins, But Fewer Details

2016 Audi Q7

The 2016 Audi Q7 will be offered as a plug-in hybrid.

Meanwhile, Honda showed off its FCV hydrogen concept, while teasing the idea that by 2018, the company would add a new battery-electric vehicle a new plug-in hybrid model. No additional details were provided, except a reference to Honda’s two- and three-motor hybrid systems. Up until now, Honda has been on the sidelines of vehicle electrification—besides tentative steps in the form of the limited Fit EV and Accord PHEV. Honda’s press release indicated that its 2018 battery-powered vehicles would “contribute to significant sales volume growth.” Let's file that in the "wait and see" folder.

Audi showed off its 2016 second-generation Q7 luxury full-size sports utility vehicle. As we discussed in July 2013, the big deal for plug-in fans is the use of Volkswagen Group’s MLB platform. VW uses assembly kits to make lines of vehicles. All vehicles using new assembly kits can accommodate gas and diesel engines—but also plug-in hybrid capability.

By thinking ahead about packaging for bigger battery packs and chargers, the company is ready to offer plug-in variants. Does that mean that Q7 e-tron units will roll out in massive numbers to U.S. showrooms? No, but from a technical perspective, it’s feasible if the demand is there. The same thing holds true for the VW Cross Coupe GTE concept at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show.

2016 Mercedes C350 Plug-in Hybrid

2016 Mercedes C350 Plug-in Hybrid

We already knew that Mercedes will introduce a plug-in hybrid version of its flagship S-Class vehicle in spring 2015. The no-plug hybrid version sells in minuscule numbers, so it’s unlikely that the PHEV version will be more popular. Perhaps the slightly downmarket C350 Plug-in Hybrid, just unveiled in Detroit—and going on sale—in fall 2015 will have a more appealing combination of electric prowess and attractive price. No details yet on the sticker.

Regarding its prowess, Mercedes packs a big punch in the C350 by pairing 208-horsepower, 258-pound-foot, turbocharged four-cylinder with an 80-horsepower that delivers 251 pound-feet of torque. That combines to 275 total ponies, 443 lb-ft of torque, and a zippy 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds. The luxury vehicle can travel 20 miles purely on electricity—up to 80 miles per hour—with an overall top speed of 130 miles per hour. Availability will be limited to California and other states that follow the Golden State’s emissions guidelines.

Between the plug-in hybrid versions of the S-Class and C-Class—as well as the all-electric versions of the B-Class Electric Drive and Smart ForTwo—we might have a full picture of Daimler’s all-electric offerings until the end of decade. That's about when company's first production-level self-driving car is expected, likely with an electric powertrain.

Finally, crowds in Detroit got a first-hand look at a red Tesla Model S P85D. The specs continue to inspire awe—691 horsepower spinning all four wheels with motivation to 60 miles per hour in just 3.2 seconds. Those numbers outmuscle the internal combustion sports machines gaining the most attention at the 2015 North American International Auto Show, which runs through January 25.

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