Auto Outlook: Toyota back on top, carmakers cut fuel cell deal

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Feb. 3, 2013 at 5:30 AM
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As expected, Japan's Toyota Motor Co. last week officially regained the No. 1 ranking among global automakers after selling 9.75 million vehicles last year.

The Japanese carmaker reported sales of its Lexus, Scion, Hino and Diahatsu brands jumped nearly 23 percent in 2012 as the company recovered from natural disasters that curtailed production in 2011 and moved to put a series of recalls behind it. Toyota fell to No. 3 globally in 2011, behind GM and Volkswagen.

After a year at the top, General Motors Co. was the No. 2 sales leader with 9.29 million vehicles sold and Germany's Volkswagen was third selling 9.1 million vehicles worldwide last year.

Nissan Motors Co., Japan's second largest automaker, sold 4.94 million vehicles last year, up 5.8 percent, and Honda Motor Co. saw its sales jump 19 percent to 3.82 million vehicles.

Toyota sold 2.08 million vehicles in the United States in 2012, a 27 percent increase, while sales in Japan soared 35 percent to 2.41 million vehicles, and rose 2 percent in Europe.

Affordable fuel cells?

Three international automakers have reached a joint deal to develop what many consider the Holy Grail of alternative fuels -- the hydrogen fuel cell.

Executives at Detroit's Ford Motor Co., Franco-Japanese Renault-Nissan and Germany's Daimler hope to create a common hydrogen electric fuel system and have "the world's first affordable, mass market fuel cell car" on the road by 2017.

Fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen with oxygen with water and heat the only byproducts. But the partnership faces the daunting task of developing an affordable fuel cell that can spur creation of an infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations.

The three automakers also face competition from Germany's BMW and Toyota, who are cooperating on their own fuel cell technology.

They will share costs on development of a common fuel-cell stack and related systems.

"The production cost until now has been prohibitive," Dr. Anthony Baxendale of Future Transport Technologies & Research in Britain told the BBC, "so by collaborating and joining forces they will be hoping to accelerate development. The technology is there -- it has been the costs that have not been viable until now."

In a statement issued at a news conference in Germany, the three automakers said they hope the partnership would "define global specifications and component standards, an important prerequisite for achieving higher economies of scale."

Daimler and Ford already partner at the Automobile Fuel Cell Cooperation, a fuel cell development facility in Vancouver, Canada, and Daimler and Renault-Nissan signed an engine-sharing agreement in 2012.

"We are convinced that fuel cell vehicles will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future," said Professor Thomas Weber, board member for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, who told The New York Times the partnership hopes eventually to produce 100,000 vehicles, although no time frame was given.

Honda, which is not part of the agreement, has had its zero-emission Clarity FCX fuel cell vehicle on the road in Southern California since 2008, offering a three-year lease for $600 a month including insurance, maintenance, roadside assistance and hydrogen.

Range for the Clarity on a single tank of hydrogen is about 240 miles.

Wide availability of hydrogen fuel would overcome the range limitations of electric vehicles, which have been slow to attract buyers.

Ford recently began offering customers as much as $10,750 off a three-year lease for its Focus EV and dropped the base price for the all-electric car by $2,000 for cash sales.

A Ford customer can get a "Red Carpet lease" on a Focus EV -- for 36 months with 10,500 miles a year -- for $285 a month with $930 due at signing.

Ford sold just 685 Focus EVs last year of the 1,627 built.

"Our intent is to make fuel economy mass-market," a Ford spokesman told the Times. "We expect for a considerable amount of time our electric battery car sales will be less than our hybrid and plug-in hybrid sales."

Nissan recently cut the price of its all-electric 2013 Leaf S by 18 percent to $28,000.

The Environmental Protection Agency is testing the mileage claims of the new Ford C-Max hybrid, which claims 47 mpg. The plug-in C-Max Energi claims a combined gasoline and electric range of 100 miles per gallon equivalent. It can go 21 miles on batteries alone.

Toyota's subcompact Prius C, voted "greenist" vehicle by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, claims fuel economy of 53 mpg city and 46 mpg highway. The only-for-lease Honda Fit EV was second. The Ford Focus EV was 10th on the organization's "greenist" list.

Chicago Auto Show ramps up

Among the vehicles being introduced at the Chicago Auto Show this week are the 2014 Toyota Tundra and the Chevrolet Cruze diesel.

Toyota's full-size pickup shares the stage with the redesigned 2013 RAV4 sport utility vehicle and 2013 Toyota Avalon. The stylish Corolla Furia Concept that made its debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January also will draw attention. Toyota has sold more than 40 million Corollas worldwide since 1968 -- 9 million of them in the United States.

The Texas-built Tundra pickup trailed full-size Ford and GM trucks with just 6.2 percent market share in 2012. Ford unveiled a concept for a new F-150, the best-selling pickup, in Detroit.

"Chicago has long been considered one of the top drawing consumer auto shows in the country," Toyota's auto show planner Brent Marrero said. "We know that 'made in America' is especially important to people living in the Midwest, and we feel we have a great story to tell, with 70 percent of all our vehicles sold in [the] U.S. being built here as well."

Chevrolet's Cruise diesel, expected to go on sale in April or May, is one of 13 new or refreshened Chevys heading to showrooms this year. The Cruise diesel will be built at the General Motors Lordstown Assembly plant in Youngstown, Ohio.

Kia, Hyundai, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and Chrysler all are expected to make vehicle introductions.

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