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Automakers see future for eco friendly high performance cars

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VANCOUVER (CP) _ High-performance car lovers who worry that a future filled with Earth-friendly hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles condemns them to life driving glorified golf carts need not fret.

Al Gore III, the son of the former American vice-president who police allegedly clocked going 169 kilometres an hour on a California highway in a Toyota Prius in July, isn't the only one pushing the performance envelope of hybrids and other alternative powertrains.

Toyota, Ford and General Motors are among carmakers that have been extending the limits of green automotive technology.

The goal currently is to establish hybrids, battery-electric and eventually hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in the automotive mainstream but they promise performance will be a key element of future models.

Meanwhile upstart Tesla Motors, co-founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, is charging into the performance segment with its US$98,000 Tesla Roadster, a battery-electric sports car scheduled to launch this fall.

Tesla says it has already pre-sold 600 Roadsters, with cars earmarked for the likes of actor George Clooney and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The company, named after electricity pioneer and inventor Nicholai Tesla, claims the two-seat Roadster can accelerate to 100 kilometres an hour in about four seconds, thanks to the inherently strong torque characteristics of electric motors, and tops out at 209 kilometres an hour.

``There aren't Ferraris and Lamborghinis that can touch that kind of performance,'' says David Vespremi, Tesla's public affairs manager. ``You have basically the pull down low of a diesel truck and the top end of a superbike.''

Vespremi said the Tesla Roadster and a proposed sports sedan were conceived to challenge driving a green car is punishment, ``the automotive equivalent of broccoli.''

Indeed, the alleged high-speed run by Gore III and more recently one by Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak _ who admits police clocked him doing 169 km/h in his Prius _ seem to demonstrate drivers want more than guilt-free transportation.

``Clearly the interest in performance is not going to go away just because there's a lot of environmental interest and a lot of focus on reduced energy consumption,'' Terry Connolly, GM's director of energy, said from Detroit.

Internal-combustion engines will be around for decades, especially for roles such as long-haul trucking.

But the future of passenger cars will be largely electric _ hybrids using electric assist or gas motors charging batteries for electric drive, plug-in electric cars with highly efficient batteries and ultimately fuel-cell electric power.

Automakers continue to stress electrics' convenient truths of better energy conservation, lower greenhouse-gas emissions but Connolly said he is ``absolutely convinced there's a long-term performance market.''

Canadian auto-industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers said luxury-sport and small sporty car segments have shrunk markedly in Canada and the United States in the last decade, in part because of soaring insurance rates.

But improved engine technology has produced a power boost for bread-and-butter models, anywhere from 80 to 100 horsepower, while delivering cleaner emissions and improved fuel economy, he said.

``What they're doing is rather than put all the horses into a very select, few vehicles, they're putting a lot more horses across the entire fleet,'' said DesRosiers.

Canadian consumers rank reliability as the top priority when buying a vehicle, he said, but performance consistently ranks No. 2.

Horsepower inflation frustrates regulators, said DesRosiers, because they'd prefer to see the money spent on boosting fuel efficiency even more.

Far from bemoaning the technology shift, the auto industry is invigorated by it. For GM, struggling in the marketplace, green cars offer a chance to leap to the front.

``There is more propulsion innovation going on now than at any time since I'll say about 1920,'' Connolly said.

GM has a few irons in the fire already. Vice-chairman and product guru Bob Lutz has promised to deliver the sporty Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid. There are also rumours of a hybrid version of the iconic Camaro muscle car.

It's safe to say any major automaker working with alternative powertrains is playing near the edge of performance, if only to learn what the technologies can do.

Toyota this month set a benchmark for hybrids by driving a largely stock Prius _ modified with larger wheels and tires and higher-speed gearing _ at 210.486 km/h on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats earlier this month.

And an electric-driven Ford Fusion sedan powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell developed by Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems, set a land-speed record of 333.6 km/h at Bonneville on Aug. 16.

The Fusion 999 is partly aimed at demonstrating how aerodynamic improvements can reduce costs by allowing the use of a smaller fuel cell, said Mujeeb Ijaz, who as Ford's manager of fuel-cell vehicle and package engineering oversaw the record run.

``The second aspect of it is to develop a brand image,'' he said. ``Ford has a racing heritage and a brand image around performance already.

``But we don't have yet anyone experimenting with something like a fuel-cell vehicle going 200 miles per hour. So we are glad to take the rights to that historic milestone of being first to do it.''

The Bonneville effort sends an important message to the marketplace about green vehicles, said DesRosiers.

``It says the Fusion hydrogen is a performance vehicle. It doesn't say the hydrogen is a fuel-efficient vehicle.''

Green high-performance cars aren't yet a presence on North American race tracks.

Sanctioning bodies such as the National Hot Rod Association, which governs most drag-racing, and the Sports Car Club of America, which oversees most non-professional race-track events, say automakers must sort out what they want to build first. Then rules can be written for racing them.

``Part of the problem when you're a sanctioning body like we are is you need a critical mass of something to go off and race it,'' said SCCA president Jim Julow, himself a former Detroit auto executive.

``From my perspective the industry itself is still full of conflicting priorities. Some think flexible fuels _ ethanol, methanol _ some are thinking hybrids, obviously, gas-electric being the most popular of those.''

U.S. race tracks and drag strips have seen privately entered electric cars at events but Julow said he would like to see factory efforts such as Peugeot's diesel race cars that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year.

He might also have mentioned Toyota's hybrid racers. A Toyota Supra HR-V, with a highly-modified hybrid powerplant, won the 24-hour endurance at Japan's Tokachi race track in July by 19 laps.

The victory came just one year after Toyota's first effort in the event, entering a Lexus GS450h hybrid that finished 17th.

The hybrid race car is a ``driving laboratory,'' Katsuhiko Koganei, assistant manager at Toyota's motorsport department, said via e-mail from Tokyo.

``Even in the motorsport world, we should think of environmental issues,'' he said. adding that racing not only tests the hybrid powertrain's durability but allows Toyota to explore ways of making systems lighter and more efficient.

It appears the old saying that racing improves the breed still applies.

There's another old saying: Race on Sunday, sell on Monday.

``I would say right now that the marketing equation on our green vehicles is not really centred around performance being the way to sell it,'' said Ford's Ijaz.

Only Lexus, Toyota's luxury-car arm, has pointedly stresses the performance attributes of its three hybrid models. Honda tried with its Accord hybrid but withdrew the slow-selling car from the market.

Lexus Canada is entering a 339-horsepower GS450h hybrid sports sedan in the Targa Newfoundland, a gruelling road race around the Rock Sept. 8-15.

``We saw it as an opportunity to showcase Lexus hybrid-drive technology in a race format that would give us some exposure and again educate people that, boy, this is a hybrid running in this event,'' said Warren Orton, Toyota Canada's director of marketing and external affairs.

Lexus has also launched an advertising campaign aimed at what it calls the myths surrounding hybrids, such as bering underpowered.

Underpowered? Just ask Al or Steve.

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Automakers see future for eco friendly high performance cars
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