Well, it's done. The public are streaming in, and the two media preview days of the 2010 New York Auto Show are over.
It wasn't a hugely significant show, but clearly the apocalyptic meltdown that automakers were experiencing last year has lifted. Sales are starting to come back, slowly, and while they're still at just two-thirds the level of three years ago, there's no more free fall.
Beyond that, with the issuance of final 2012-2016 fuel-economy rules, automakers have a single clear set of standards they must meet, and they're already planning to do just that.
With the new era in mind, here's our take on the best and the worst among the growing number of green cars on display:
STRONGEST NEWCOMER: 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
When Hyundai sets out to do something, they really go at it. Their first hybrid sedan boasts a lithium-ion battery pack, higher all-electric speeds, better fuel economy, and stronger performance than the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid, let alone the 2010 Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Among other things, Hyundai gets major points for giving its hybrid a distinctly different look than other Sonatas. While everything from the windshield back is pretty similar, all-new front sheet metal gives it a very different "face," and we think that's very, very smart.
On sale late this year, Hyundai's first U.S. hybrid promises to shake up the fast-growing hybrid sedan game that for so long belonged solely to the Camry Hybrid. We'll be eagerly badgering our contacts at Hyundai for our test drive.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
BEST CONVENTIONAL GREEN CAR: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
While hybrids and electric cars get the most attention, the new 2012-2016 fuel economy requirements will largely be met by making existing gasoline engine technology better, and by using smaller, more efficient engines.
The 2011 Chevy Cruze Eco model is a good example of this. It uses a 1.4-liter direct-injected and turbocharged engine that puts out 138 horsepower, and delivers 40 miles per gallon on the highway when fitted with the six-speed manual transmission (an automatic is optional as well).
Notably, the Cruze Eco is based on the mid-range Cruze LT model, so you get decent standard equipment, including Chevy's trademark two-tone interior styling. It's far from the stripped down, bare-bones economy models that GM used to sell, and we think it'll do well.
But even if it doesn't, it gives Chevrolet the ability to tout that magical 40-mpg mark--just as Ford has proudly trumpeted its "300 horsepower and 31 mpg" tagline for the 2011 Mustang V-6, though our road testers got just 23 mpg during their drive.
2011 Scion iQ at 2010 New York Auto Show
U.S. buyers historically just haven't warmed up to really, really small cars. Ten years ago, it was an eye-popping revelation to Detroit that tens of thousands of people a year would pay more than $20,000 for a Mini Cooper.
That car's BMW breeding, rollerskate handling, and cheeky image ensured it a place in buyers' hearts, and it's doing well even as its range has expanded. Then came the Smart ForTwo, a truly tiny two-seater whose sales peaked at 24,400 in 2008, when gasoline prices were at their highest, but have since fallen to a fraction of that.
So it's downright daring of Scion to offer its 10-foot-long iQ mini-car, which has some resemblance to the two-passenger Smart even though it holds three people plus a child, pet, or package in a fourth seat as well.
And it's even more daring for Scion exec Jack Hollis to quote projected sales: He expects to sell 1,700 to 2,000 iQ models a month, or up to 25,000 a year. We wish him luck.
The Dark Side of Green
ODDEST TAGLINE: 2011 Lexus CT 200h
As we noted earlier today, we don't find "the darker side of green" a welcoming--or indeed understandable--way to invite potential buyers to experience a new hybrid.
Especially if you're Lexus, and you're trying to launch a new body style (a five-door hatchback) in a new size (compact) to an audience (Gen X and Gen Y) who haven't historically bought your cars.
For their sake, we hope the tactic works. The car itself is a somewhat blocky hatchback with a vertical tail and an elaborate rear window and roof pillar line. To us, its styling doesn't say "Lexus" in the same fashion as the brand's more elegant four-door sedans.
The 1.8-liter engine is the same one as used in the 2010 Toyota Prius, but we hope the CT 200h is more rewarding to drive than the last new Lexus hybrid, the internally conflicted 2010 Lexus HS 250h. We'll let you know when we get our hands on one.
2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
MOST UNDERWHELMING DEBUT: 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
Granted that it wasn't an all-new vehicle but a new model, the addition of a hybrid version to the Lincoln MKZ line of midsize luxury sedans still seemed almost invisible amidst other, more dynamic debuts.
Perhaps it's because the MKZ is the least distinctive Lincoln--it's essentially an elaborate trim level layered onto a 2010 Ford Fusion, with only unique front sheetmetal and rear lights to set it apart visually from its less expensive brethren.
Or perhaps it's due to the kudos earned last spring by the 2010 Fusion Hybrid, which trounces the similarly sized 2010 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Since the hybrid hardware is the same as on that car, there was nothing new technically.
Either way, while it's a good thing that Lincoln now has a hybrid offering too, the universal reaction among industry analysts and media seemed to be a yawn, followed by faint words of mild praise.
We're now waiting for Ford's first hybrid with a lithium-ion battery pack, which it will launch in 2012. That one should pose interesting competition to the 2011 Sonata Hybrid (see above). But, hey, if you're a Lincoln buyer, check out the 2011 MKZ Hybrid.
More on the show, from Motor Authority: 2010 New York Auto Show: Best Performance/Luxury in Show
More on the show, from Motor Authority: 2010 New York Auto Show: Worst Performance/Luxury in Show