Hybrid? Electric? Hydrogen?
The future of automotive propulsion is uncertain - or at least it was until the Frankfurt auto show, where for all intents and purposes battery power was declared the winner. "We all think this is the right way to go," said Audi technology chief Michael Dick, echoing popular sentiment. His company's e-tron concept , essentially a slightly smaller version of the R8 powered by lithium-ion batteries, will see limited production in 2012. Renault showed four battery-powered concepts, all of which it plans to have in productionn by 2012. Peugeot countered with two (plus two hybrids) and will have its first electric - a rebadged Mitsubishi i MiEV - on sale by the end of 2010.
Most of the French entries are city cars, but Audi's electric sports car was no anomaly. Porsche's new CEO, Michael Macht, announced that his company would field an electric sports car, "since this trend toward electric power is unstoppable." And Mercedes-Benz was quick to announce that in 2011 (a year before Audi) it would add an electric version of its reborn Gullwing, the SLS AMG , which was only just making its public debut.
BMW, though, must have missed the memo. Its headliner, the Vision EfficientDynamics concept (see page 32), was a plug-in diesel hybrid. The other headline-making diesel was the two-cylinder, two-seat-tandem Volkswagen L1 , an update of the company's 1-liter-car (235 mpg) concept. The L1 gets close to that goal, with a claimed 170 mpg. VW plans to build a small batch in 2013.
Hybrids, meanwhile, got a push from, yes, Toyota, which unveiled three: a production Auris for Europe plus a Prius plug-in and the Lexus LF-Ch , both concepts. The latter presages a subcompact offering for Toyota's luxury division. A less-glamorous small car arrived in the form of the new Ford C-Max five- and seven-seat crossovers based on the new Focus platform, which is newly relevant to Americans. The seven-seat Grand C-Max  is headed our way, as is the new Focus; we'll see it at the Detroit auto show.
At the groovier end of the spectrum, the Italians appeared to take a sanguine view toward global warming, instead relying on those old standbys, performance and style, to sell the new Ferrari 458 Italia and the Maserati GranCabrio. The same could be said of British debuts, such as the Aston Martin Rapide , the Jaguar XJ, and the Rolls-Royce Ghost . But no one was more aloof than Bugatti. The rarefied bauble of the Volkswagen Group didn't participate in the show, instead holding an invitation-only preview at Molsheim the day before. Attendees got a peek at the 16C Galibier , a proposed four-door successor to the Veyron. A W-16 engine is used, this time boosted by two superchargers. All Bugatti needs are 300 or 400 prospects willing to spend about $1.6 million on a car - one that burns gasoline (or ethanol), and lots of it, rather than humming in tune with the electric future.