Trying to Get a Word In

Toyota’s unveiling of the ’10 Prius hybrid felt more like the good old days at the Detroit show. Toyota minders and Cobo Hall security were vigilant about checking badges and wristbands to enter the Riverview Ballroom, unlike Sunday, when anyone with a pulse could get into the Lexus HS press conference.

There was plenty of chatter at the Prius event, with a sizable crowd gathered well before show time, leaving standing room only.

There also was a strong police presence, perhaps helping Toyota avoid a replay of Sunday’s rough-and-tumble Rick Wagoner scrum. One journalist says the sideline crush was one of the worst he’s experienced for its pushing and shoving.

A Room of One’s Own

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, speaking after the auto maker announces plans to manufacture battery packs for the Chevy Volt in Michigan, says it won’t be difficult for the cash-strapped auto maker to find a site. “We’ve got a lot of empty building around here these days.”

Last Year a GEM

For most auto makers, 2008 was a terrible sales year. But Global Electric Motor, owned by Chrylser LLC, bucked the trend: 2008 was the “best year ever,” says GEM President and COO Rick Kasper.

GEM produces golf cart-like electric vehicles for a variety of residential and light-industrial uses. The 11-year-old company has produced nearly 40,000 units of what it calls neighborhood electric vehicles.

Company officials decline to give specific sales numbers, but a spokesman says last year’s total was about 4,000 vehicles. That’s enough to light up the night.

My Way or Highway

Toyota and Ford have been going head-to-head here over fuel-economy claims for their respective new Prius and Fusion hybrids, with the Japanese auto maker proclaiming its estimated combined 50-mpg (4.7 L/100-km) Prius as the leader in the midsize-sedan segment.

Ford’s Barb Samardzich, vice president-powertrain product development, tells Ward’s she is “absolutely flattered” by Toyota’s attention toward the 41-mpg (5.7L L/100-km) city Fusion Hybrid. But a new battle may be brewing.

In an interview at the show, Toyota Div. head honcho Bob Carter tells Ward’s Toyota’s conservative approach to taxing its hybrid battery increases its longevity. While Ford is touting the Fusion’s ability to travel at speeds up to 47 mph (76 km/h) on electric power, Toyota’s various hybrids boast a 25-35 mph (40-56 km/h) limit.

Carter says the fact some Priuses have racked up 350,000 miles (563,255 km) and still have their original battery is proof Toyota’s approach is working.

Lutz Looking for Exit Ramp?

Bob Lutz joined General Motors as product-development chief in September 2001, reputedly for three years. He later added vice chairman to his title, as well as chairman of GM North America.

Lutz was 69 at the time and three years have turned into seven. As his imprint on GM’s product renaissance keeps growing, there’s no sign of slowing down or looking for an exit sign.

The product guru, who turns 77 in February, tells Ward’s he plans to hang on “a little longer.” Until he’s 80? “That’s possible, but not longer than that,” Lutz says.

‘Car Czar’ Holds No Thrill for Shill

Asked after a presentation here if he is in favor of a “car czar” guiding the recovery of the U.S. auto industry, David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, says, “I think a car czar is a really good thing.”

The person named to the position likely would understand the auto industry and be well-versed in corporate finances and restructuring, he elaborates later.

Would he consider taking the position? “Not in a million years,” Cole says. “I’d have to get up way too early and fly to Washington too much. Besides, I’m viewed as being too much of a shill for the industry.”

– compiled by Barbara McClellan