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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2010

Combustion engines going strong at Paris Auto Show

ASSOCIATED PRESS

PARIS — Hybrids and electric cars may get top billing. But at the Paris Auto Show, conventional engines are showing they have plenty of mileage left.

A diesel-powered Ford Fiesta and a Fiat 500 subcompact are among the conventional powertrains on display that boasted emissions very close to market-leading hybrids.

Hybrids and electrics are still not driving automotive industry profits nor have they grabbed any serious market share. Automakers from Fiat to Ford are looking to squeeze as much efficiency as possible out of conventional engines before making major forays into hybrid and electric engines.

Even Toyota Motor Corp., the industry leader in hybrid vehicles with 13 years on the road, keeps a sharp focus on conventional engines. The more efficient the gasoline-powered component of the hybrid, the more efficient the hybrid.

Fiat's chief executive officer, Sergio Marchionne, said there's more to be gained from tweaking conventional engines for higher efficiency.

“From my standpoint, I think the amount of work that can and should be done on the removal … of the loss-making portions of combustion and transmissions is the biggest bang for the buck you can get out of any dollar of investment today,” Mr. Marchionne said in an interview at the Paris show last week.

He said investment in electric and hybrid technology is inevitable, and Fiat and its U.S. ally Chrysler Group LLC are making the necessary investments to “not fall behind the technology curve.”

Fiat plans to sell an electrified 500, shown in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, in the United States in 2012 under its partnership with Chrysler.

So far, it has not announced its hybrid plans.

And Ford Motor Co. will have five electric models on European roads by 2013, with the first arriving next year.

But the fact is, in the United States only 3 percent of vehicle sales are hybrids, and even fewer are electric.

PricewaterhouseCooper's Auto-facts consultancy predicts that electric vehicle production worldwide is likely to hit only 1.5 million units by 2020.

The high cost of batteries, forcing up the price of electric cars, and a lack of infrastructure to extend the limited range of electrified automobiles before they need a recharge have hampered the adoption of electrified automobiles.

Dutch automaker Spyker Cars NV, which bought the Saab brand from General Motors Co., is making 70 electric-powered cars for a European test program.

Its CEO, Victor Muller, told Reuters: “The grid in the United States in many areas is so completely outdated that you could see serious problems arising.”

Chief executives including Mr. Marchionne consider hybrids the answer in the medium to long-term. Unlike electric, which are 100 percent battery-run, hybrids involve some sort of fossil-fuel consumption engine that works along with an electrified powertrain.

“It's the $10,000 question,” Dieter Zetsche, Daimler AG's chief executive, said of alternative auto power. “We are investing huge amounts of money. We won't see a return for five years, or a decade. … No one really knows when it will come to 5 percent or 10 percent of sales driven by electric or hybrids. We have to make sure when it happens that we are there.”

Experts say that what ultimately may change the tide is not so much government regulation toward lower emissions, which often can be met with more efficient conventional engines, but generation change.

Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst with IHS automotive, said the drivers of tomorrow, kids today too young to drive, are “much more receptive to these new technologies, much more open to the idea that your vehicle does not necessarily have to have a V8 engine to be fun and exciting.”



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