Alternative Cars at the Baltimore Auto Show

Light Rail commuters were able to get in free to the opening day of Motor Trend’s Auto Show at the Baltimore Convention Center. So I stopped by after work. The show seemed smaller than in years past. For one thing, it all fit on the Exhibition floor (Level 100) instead of extending up into the Mezzanine (Level 200) and Meeting Room (Level 300) as in the last time I attended. Even so, there was room for an indoor Jeep drive-around. There were far fewer small vendors. Geico had a booth, Save the Bay was selling license plates and MTA had one of their Clean Diesel buses that you could walk through. But the car paraphernalia vendors that were so numerous two years ago were not there. Not on Thursday, anyway.

My goal was to take the opportunity to open doors, sit in the driver’s seat and checkout the trunk – without being bothered by salespeople. I limited myself to EVs, hybrids, and fuel-efficient cars. I have to admit that I didn’t feel as interested as I did at least year’s DC Auto Show. Maybe the reality of an impending auto purchase is weighing too heavily. Maybe investing in fossil fuel tech seems worse than before.

Subaru has no hybrids or EVs. I took a quick look at the new Subaru Crosstrek — mostly because it was orange — which is essentially an Impreza WRX with much better ground clearance. 25/33 mpg isn’t bad, but isn’t exceptional, and I only drive over potholes.

I still love the curves of the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (34/39) and found the interior spacious and well-appointed. It’s fuel efficiency just isn’t that great for a hybrid, and accordimg to Edmunds TCO, the 2012 hybrid costs $9K more over 5 years than a comparable combustion-only sedan.  The 2013 Elantra GT (27/37) is attractive and roomy enough for my 6′-1″ frame, but I would swear that a 2012 Elantra was just as roomy and got 28/40 mpg. A lot of those 40 mpg claims have been challenged in the last year.

A slim brunette was doing her Dodge Dart spiel, so I took a quick look at Kia’s Soul (25/30). It was surrounded by cartoon hamsters on foam core boards. When I opened the Soul’s front door it felt so light and cheap that I didn’t even want to sit inside. Kia also has the Rio (28/36) and Forte (27/37), but I only glanced at them. Kia offered the 2012 Optima hybrid, but I didn’t like its low slit of a windshield last year.

Dodge usually advertises their Dart in glossy red, but one on the floor was the ugliest shade of green I’ve seen in a while. They call it Citrus Peel. Another color is Header Orange. I didn’t come away thinking of Alfa Romeo design. The $20K Aero package with 1.4 Liter engine and six-speed manual transmission manages 28/41, but the less expensive Rallye, SXT and SE are rated from 24/34 to 27/39 mpg depending on engine and transmission.

I noticed the pale blue C30 Polestar (21/30) as I walked past Volvo. There was a lot of action around a dark blue Volt (Blue Topaz, I think), so I sat in a Cruze Eco (28/42). The interior was roomy enough, and the interior trim was low key. The last time I saw the Chevy Spark (28/37), which is really a Daewoo, it was a locked prototype. I opened the door, but it felt even cheaper than the Soul. I should have written down the fuel efficiency numbers because Chevy has this thing about only publicizing highway mpg. Fortunately http://www.fueleconomy.gov has them all. The Spark is so very narrow, I didn’t even try to sit in it.

Nissan’s new variable gear automatic Versa sedan (31/40) had a cavernous trunk, a roomy interior with decent plastic trim, and a very low price tag of about $14K. But the even cheaper 5 speed manual is only 27/36 and the 4 speed automatic is only 26/35. [Update: An Around the Block review at the NY Times finds the Versa’s CVT shifter very mistake-prone, so it might be safer to choose a less expensive, less efficient transmission.]

Mazda still has no hybrids. The Mazda 2 (29/35) or Demio, is about as stylish and roomy as the Elantra, with slightly poorer fuel efficiency. The Versa is cheaper and more fuel-efficient than either of them.

VWs always look good. The CC was new to me, but VW promised a Jetta hybrid last year. I finally found the turbocharged Jetta hybrid (42/48), a very attractive car with a roomy, well-appointed cabin. I think some of the trunk space was cut out for hybrid purposes, but it was still spacious. The sticker showed a base price of $16,675 but an MSRP almost twice that, $31,180. [Checking online, the base prices are as follows: Hybrid $24,995, Hybrid SE $26,990, Hybrid SEL $29, 325 and Hybrid SEL Premium $31,180, so I may have been sitting in the Premium.]

I tried to sit in a Honda Insight (41/44) mild hybrid. A salesman asked if I needed help, and I said, “The seat won’t push back,” but he just nodded and walked away. I did sit in the Honda Fit (28/35), which seems incredibly spacious for such a small car, and they had a Fit EV (132/105, 85 mile range) on the floor. The thin blonde Honda rep kept telling me about the Accord PlugIn, which wasn’t in the show, but was supposed to be available soon. The Fit EV is something of a compliance car, and only about 1,100 will be leased this year, but she claimed that a local dealer has several of them. The lithium-titanate Super Charge ion Battery (SCiB) is supposed to be very quick charging and long-lasting, though comparatively low in energy density. At $36,625, I could see the Fit EV eroding the Leaf’s sales, if they really tried to sell them.

I sat in both the Ford C-Max Energi (44/41, 100 in EV mode) plug-in hybrid and the Ford Fusion hybrid (47/47). The Energi was very spacious, like the Prius v, and the interior finish made no impression I can recall. The Fusion was roomy enough, but the interior struck me as plasticky like the old Ford Escape hybrid. There is no new Escape hybrid this year.

At Toyota, I saw the Avalon hybrid (40/39) in a cream color that reminded me of the 2012 Volt. I sat in a Prius (51/48) and Prius Plugin (51/49, 95 EV), and still think that the center console takes up a lot of cabin space. Feels like a coffin. The Prius v (44/40) is much more open, and surprisingly so is the Prius c (53/46). I had read that the Prius c shares chassis with the Yaris, but it is much roomier inside, almost on a par with the Fit. There was plenty of legroom and visibility was excellent. The Prius hatchback certainly carries more than the c, but for a one or two person commuter, the c is more than adequate.

I also sat in the Camry hybrid (43/39), which was comparatively elegant like the Sonata and Jetta. If you can spend many thousands more on a car, any of those three will be very comfortable rides. Edmunds quotes the Camry hybrid with a lower cost of ownership than the standard Camry, so to my mind, there’s no reason to buy the non-hybrid version.

For basic transportation with a low initial cost, it seems hard to beat the Versa sedan [though it might be better to choose the manual or automatic rather than the CVT]. For better fuel efficiency, the Prius c has moved to the top of my list.

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