With less than a year left before he steps into retirement, Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz reflects on his four-decade career and offers a range of wry observations during an informal chat with Ward's Auto World at the North American International Auto Show.

On the prospects of light-weight electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles:

"None of this technology is ever going to be bought by anybody unless we either outlaw the piston engine or we take fuel prices up to European levels. I know we have some courageous politicians, but I don't think we have many who are that courageous."

On environmental mandates to increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards or require a fixed number of electric cars, or 80-mile-per-gallon (2.9L/100 km) hybrid by a certain deadline: "That's like solving the nation's obesity problem by telling the clothing manufacturers they are no longer allowed to manufacture large sizes."

On the vehicle he is most proud of over the course of his career: "It was probably the Ford Sierra in Europe because it was such a radical departure. We only had a limited amount of investment. We couldn't go front-wheel-drive with it. We succeeded in making a virtue out of rear-wheel-drive and we did the Ford Motor Co.'s first resolutely aerodynamic hatchback car. At first we shocked everybody because it was such a radical departure from its predecessor, the Cortina. Then it lived, practically unchanged, for 12 years, and was still not stale looking when it was replaced by the Mondeo."

His proudest decision at Chrysler?

"Strongly supporting the concept of platform teams and throwing whatever clout I had on the line, and being the recipient of a lot of heat, a lot of anger and disappointment and becoming generally unpopular among those who at first didn't get it. You can't be a popular leader and introduce change at the same time. Change, however beneficial, is always going to be resented by those who have an equity in the status quo, and they're usually the holders of power.

"The things I'm proudest of were rarely my idea. They were almost always someone else's idea. For instance, like the SCORE program with suppliers where we ask them to generate cost-saving ideas. I was very quick to see the appeal of that solution, which at the time was extremely hard to sell in a corporation where every time we got in financial difficulty the chairman would fire off a letter to the CEOs of suppliers saying, 'I demand an immediate 1% price cut or an immediate 3% cut.'

"We knew our buyers would go to the supplier and say, 'Give me a break, I've got to come home with a 2% price reduction,' and the supplier would say, 'Okay, I'll get you the price cut, but in a couple of months you'll have to get me an engineering change so I can claw back my costs." o

General Motors Corp. deservedly draws kudos for its declaration that it will have a production-ready electric/diesel hybrid by 2001 and a production-ready fuel cell car by 2004, but the operative phrase is production-ready.

Just what does that mean?

"It depends on government incentives," says Vice Chairman Harry Pearce. "There are federal and, in some cases, state tax incentives for those who lease our EV1; perhaps those could be expanded. It does no good to put these vehicles on the street if nobody can buy them."

To gain high- volume penetration, any electric vehicle would need a much more extensive infrastructure of charging stations than exists now. And any hybrid powertrain almost certainly will need a much more receptive attitude toward diesel engines from regulators. Direct-injection diesel engines simply are more efficient than their gasoline counterparts, but, although much cleaner than a decade ago, they emit considerably higher levels of sooty particulate matter than U.S. air quality regulations permit.

But even with tax credits, GM counted up a paltry 289 EV1 lessees in 1997 when it offered the lead-acid battery powered two-seater in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson.

Both Mr. Pearce and GM Chairman Jack Smith say the hybrid and fuel cell technology most likely will be introduced first in Europe, where gasoline prices of more than $4 per gallon make them more economically viable.

While GM's top two executives say they are prepared to support a modest increase in gasoline taxes, the political appetite for such a measure is all but non-existent.

This summer GM plans to introduce its second-generation battery, a nickel-metal-hydride package that should double

the EV1's range between rechargings from the current 80 miles (128 km) to about 160 miles (256 km).

But Robert Purcell, GM director of advanced vehicles, says the cost of the nickel metal hydride battery is equal to the entire cost of the first generation EV1.

Or, as Chairman Smith puts it, "Where we are today, we have a long way to go to get any of these vehicles to the level of Cadillac-affordable." o

Nearly lost in the shadow of General Motors' alternative fuel declaration are at least equally credible efforts from Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., reflecting what they've learned from the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.

Ford's P2000 sheds 40% of a current model Taurus' weight and features an aluminum 1.2L direct-injection aluminum through-bolt assembly (DIATA) engine that runs on either methanol or diesel fuel. Without a battery to provide auxiliary propulsion, the midsize sedan can get 63 miles/gallon (3.7L/100 km).

P2000 also will serve as a test bed for Ford's fuel cell efforts, for which it recently took a 15% stake in Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, BC. If Ford linked the DIATA powerplant with an electric motor it could reach PNGV's stated goal of 80 mpg (2.9L/100 km).

Ford sources say that the P2000, with some modifications to its body structure, could be ready for market by 2000 in the event of an oil crisis.

Chrysler's ESX2 is a "mild hybrid" that uses a 1.3L direct-injection diesel engine combined with a lead-acid battery pack. The latter is only designed to operate electrical accessories, augmenting the diesel only during hard acceleration.

By using thermoplastic polyester, Chrysler advanced- product engineers can slash the weight to 2,250 lbs. (1,021 kg), bringing the potential fuel economy into the neighborhood of 70 mpg (3.4L/100 km). The show car uses carbon fiber body panels.

Chrysler Executive Vice President Thomas Gale says it would cost $15,000 more than a 1998 gasoline-powered Dodge Intrepid, but that's way down from a $60,000 cost differential on the Dodge Intrepid ESX Chrysler displayed two years ago.

"We don't see putting this on the road because our research shows people aren't prepared to pay $15,000 extra" for a car that would take about 12 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph (96 km/h)," Mr. Gale says.

But he says the cost-penalty would not necessarily have to be wiped out completely before Chrysler would offer it on the market.

Olds Thinks Intrigue Buyers are 'Out There'

Hey, maybe there's a product placement conspiracy behind all those Ford Crown Victorias you see in Fox Network's popular series The X-Files.

Whatever. Twentieth Century Fox Licensing and Merchandising is taking its "The X-Files Expo" on the road and General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile Div. is tying in a promotion of its new midsize sedan, the Intrigue.

X-Files junkies will be implored to "Experience the Intrigue" as part of the exhibition, which goes on a 10-city tour beginning March 6.

Says Intrigue Brand Manager Ken Stewart: "The X-Files Expo meshes perfectly with Olds-mobile's objectives for the Intrigue, which includes marketing strategies fueled by out-of-the-ordinary tactics."

Toyota to Boost Engine Output at New WV Plant

Toyota Motor Corp. will increase the capacity at its new Buffalo, WV, engine plant, due to open later this year, from 300,000 to 500,000 per year.

The 300,000 engines, for which the plant was designed initially, will be 4-cyl. power-plants for the Toyota Corolla. But the expansion of its Cambridge, Ont., assembly plant where Toyota expects to build about 50,000 new Solara coupes each year, and strong sales of Camry and Avalon sedans and Sienna minivan have created a need for more 3L

V-6 engines.

So Toyota adds $300 million to its West Virginia investment, bringing the cost of the engine plant to $700 million, to build up to 200,000 V-6 engines. Expansion will double employment at the plant from 300 to 600.

Trotman's Hot

"Of course it's propaganda." That's Ford Chairman Alex Trotman's terse response to cascading reports of "green car" breakthroughs by Japanese automakers that indicate they're whipping the Big Three in developing cleaner vehicles. Anticipating fallout from the global warming hulabaloo, the Japanese turned last fall's Tokyo Motor Show into a "green" showcase, and they continue to press their technological triumphs. But, says Mr. Trotman and other Big Three sources, they have no true edge. Striking a counter blow, the Big Three use the January North American International Auto Show in Detroit to unleash a flood of "green" initiatives ranging from cleaner trucks to lightweight recyclable body panels and far-out fuel cells. "We all have basically the same technology," sniffs one senior Ford engineer. Perhaps, but who's winning the war of the words?

CVT Talk Gets Serious

They've always had a certain allure: Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) with no shift points and no need to keep the brake pedal depressed at a stop light, both of which waste energy and reduce overall vehicle efficiency. Automakers worldwide have worked on CVTs for years, but they've never totally overcome technical and cost barriers. Now, WAW learns, with most of the technical bugs worked out some very serious, bigtime CVT projects are under way. Most likely the earliest major applications: In small cars, although a CVT might add some panache to a luxury car as well.

Rocky Mountain High

Cadillac's asking dealers to come up with a name for the sport/utility vehicle it's introducing late this year. The winner gets the first one off the line. They didn't ask us,but why not the Cadillac Colorado to go along with the Cadillac Eldorado? Aspen, Vail, rugged terrain. It's enough to give you a Rocky Mountain high . . .