Tesla Motors, which featured its futuristic all-electric SUV, the Model X, in Detroit, has made giving consumers both what they want and what they need the linchpin of its business strategy, according to spokeswoman Christina Ra. Tesla's all-electric luxury sedan, the Model S, was named the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year. And the company is taking the same "no compromises" approach with the seven-passenger Model X, she said.
"To truly accelerate adoption [of electric vehicles], we believe we must create compelling vehicles, period. Not compelling electric vehicles, but compelling vehicles that are powered by electricity. No compromises -- in fact, in many ways, better than other vehicles that are available," said Ra.
Large cars that don't guzzle
Larger hybrid vehicles aren't an entirely new concept. In 2005, Toyota Motor Corp. launched a hybrid gasoline-electric version of the Lexus RX SUV, and it continues to regularly sell more than 1,000 units per month, according to Edmunds.
Ford Motor Co. also used to offer a hybrid version of the Ford Escape SUV but discontinued it with the launch of the gasoline-electric C-MAX compact car, which has sold more than 4,000 units per month since its launch last October. Acevedo said the C-MAX's success is a good indication that larger vehicles in the hybrid space can also expect to perform well on the market.
"The fact that [the C-MAX] is a vehicle specifically designed to provide large-car utility means it certainly makes sense that moving up to a full-size SUV and taking electrified technology to those vehicles is something that consumers are looking for," he said.
To tap into that demand, Nissan Motor Co. unveiled the Nissan Resonance in Detroit -- a hybrid SUV concept car that draws on the company's vast experience in making electric passenger vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. The Resonance also features Nissan's next-generation Xtronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) that maximizes power and mileage by allowing the engine to run in the most efficient gear ratio.
The Resonance is not a plug-in vehicle, but it nonetheless pushes the limits of fuel economy in the SUV class, which will help bridge the gap in consumer acceptance of electrified vehicles, while also helping automakers make inroads toward the mandated 54.5 mpg fuel economy target by 2025.
"EVs will certainly help to boost every manufacturer's corporate average fuel economy, plug-in hybrids similarly. And, of course, vehicles such as midsize [gasoline-powered] sedans like the Altima getting 38 mpg today, and you can imagine what the trajectory is for those vehicles," said Michael Bunce, director of product planning for large sedans and crossovers at Nissan. "But we can't exclude the full-size crossover; every vehicle is going to have to contribute to the 54.5 mpg target."
'Climate change is real'
To achieve better fuel economy, automakers are not only bringing hybrid and full-electric powertrains to bigger vehicles, they are optimizing the vehicles themselves.
It is impossible to miss the bold aerodynamic frame of the Nissan Resonance, while other efficient design features are less obvious. Ford, for instance, will offer improved fuel economy of more than 2 mpg on its new Atlas Concept pickup truck featured in Detroit last week with a combination of what the company calls "active aerodynamic elements."
These features include a drop-down front wind spoiler and grille and wheel shutters that automatically engage at highway speeds to improve airflow around the vehicle. The truck also contains Ford's next-generation EcoBoost engine and start-stop technology, which saves fuel by shutting off the engine while the vehicle is stopped. The feature automatically turns off when the truck is towing.