Detroit 2009: Cobo basement goes electric

The bad news at Detroit this year is that there are fewer automakers present than any time in recent memory. The good news is that the absence of Nissan, Rolls Royce, and Land Rover, among others, has freed up some space for; test-driving.

The basement at Cobo Hall has been converted into a mini test track for alternative-fuel vehicles. Most of the usual suspects were present, including the GM Two-Mode trucks and Saturn VUE, and the 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid. Being the entrepreneurial and slightly bored journalist I am, I ventured downstairs and drove almost all of them (unfortunately, those smug CNN folks hogged the fuel-cell Chevy Equinox for more than a half hour).

After signing some liability forms and passing a breathalyzer test, I climbed into a Cadillac Escalade. Unfortunately, I was restrained to under 10 mph, so I can’t tell you much about at the limit handling characteristics. I did, however, notice a few differences among the hybrids.

– The Fusion ran the almost the entire track in electric mode, and when I punched the accelerator startup was nearly imperceptable (save for the dire warnings from my chaperone).

-The GMT900s can be quite dangerous for pedestrians under 10 mph, as I nearly ran over a worker in utter silence.

– Auto journalists get a lot more excited than you’d expect to drive vehicles they’ve already seen indoors.

The most intriguing vehicle was the Mitsubishi iMiev. Set to go on sale in Japan this summer, the little electric car was clearly the best equipped to tackle a congested test track. Thanks to rear-wheel drive and a spunky motor (63 hp and 133 lb-ft) it was quite spritely and manueverable. It seats four and has an estimated range of about 100 miles. Mitsubishi -which is still in business, thank you very much – plans to do some testing with these vehicles in Califiornia, although it has no plans yet for sales here.

Vistitors on general attendence days will be offered rides on the test track, but won’t be able to drive. “Oh God no, I wouldn’t have signed up for that,” said one of my chaperones.