As the Wheel Turns
The Midwest, long the storied Avalon of the automotive industry, may see a return to its former manufacturing glory
By David S. LewisPublished March 1, 2012
Detroit, known internationally as Motor City, was and is the most important cartown in American history – but its stranglehold is no longer a monopoly, and Ohio has leveraged itself against its northern neighbor effectively after the recession dealt a crippling blow to the industry. Now, the Buckeye State stands to capitalize on the new wave of American auto manufacture, from long-time auto giants to upstart new kids, from sports cars to hybrids and electric vehicles, full-assembly, partial, and parts. Here’s a little of what’s coming in the near future:
Venturi North America (and the Ohio State University)
Less money, and fewer jobs, but somewhat more exciting: Venturi, an automobile company originally based in France, has built everything from sports cars to Formula 1 racers. Now, Venturi is partnering with The Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research. (Yes. The acronym is “C.A.R.” We like it, too.)
Some of Venturi’s ventures are slick gas-guzzling bad-asses. That’s not really what they are building here. Inspired by the dune buggies that clog our American highways, the Venturi America is a high-performance, street-designed electric sports car, boasting a 300-horsepower electric engine and Batmobile-esque lines, a specialty (read: luxury) toy for the green set. It’s not an especially surprising choice, since the company’s last partner project with OSU resulted in the Buckeye Bullet, which seems to have set the electric vehicle land-speed record with an astonishing 320 miles-per-hour, glassing the sand over Utah’s Salt Flats, long a proving ground for absurdly fast mechanical phalluses.
Venturi has also delved into a couple weird concepts, as well, from moon-rover-looking cars that make little sense aesthetically but run fast as hell, to an adorable chunkster of a shoebox designed to take EV technology to the Antarctic. Hopefully, our next winter won’t help with the development of any such cold-weather projects any more than this one would.
Looking for a low-speed, low-range, low-excitement EV perfect for cruising the pretend-streets of your favorite retirement community? Look no further than the Wheego, the automobile equivalent of the Jitterbug cell phone. While Wheego’s roots are in temperate speeds ideal for campus-style cruising, the new Wheego LiFe has a top speed of nearly 65 mph and boasts of a hundred-mile range – and the cars are one of the few EVs you could actually go buy tomorrow in the city, at the old Saab dealership on Hamilton Road. After the Saab company sales plummeted last year, following the Swedish manufacturer’s demise, the Auto Center Southeast jumped quickly on the Wheego as a new niche product for a niche-savvy dealership. While the company specialized in pre-owned vehicles, they plan to add other EVs, such as the Nissan Leaf, as they make their way to our market. The LiFe, however, retails for just over $32,000, before a $7,500 federal rebate – and you could go get one today. Just make sure you have a 220-volt outlet in your garage.
The beginning of the end
Another upstart vying with Elon Musk and his Tesla brand of cool electrocars is Southern California’s CODA Automotive. A coda is a term in music notation referring to the end of something – a cheeky jab at the company’s hoped-for demise of the internal combustion engine, a fate the automaker hopes to hasten with its new EV. Boasting the longest range options of any EV currently on the market, the CODA looks like as much fun as a couple of aspirin, but makes up for its bland exterior with lots of gimmes like a touchscreen stereo display, standard items like hands-free calling and Bluetooth synchronicity, and an impressive variety of safety features, from smart airbags that deploy with varying degrees of alacrity depending on the severity of the crash, anti-lock brakes, and even a battery that self-disconnects in the event of a crash, to minimize the opportunity for electrical shock for passengers and first responders. CODA already has plans to reduce their dependence on the fickle consumer market by selling the vehicles to car rental companies Enterprise and Hertz, and to aggressively bid their sales as fleet vehicles.
All sunshine and potato batteries, right? Not quite. Despite the company’s plans to build a plant in Columbus, you’re not likely to see one parked in front of Bodega for quite a while: the factory here would only make the car’s lithium-iron batteries, and the plant’s very build depends on the federal government extending the company a nearly half-billion dollar loan through the Department of Energy – something the Obama administration may be more than a little reticent to do, after the PR nightmare of the Solyndra scandal. CODA says the battery plant, which could employ as many as 1,000 central Ohioans, is contingent on that loan, even though the state has ponied up a significant incentive package. (So has the city, for that matter.) Ohio wants it bad, but CODA has repeatedly delayed the launch of their car in California through last year, even before charismatic and capable CEO Kevin Czinger announced he was stepping down. The company’s credibility has taken its share of hits, but they have a lot of money, and some very impressive investors, so it’s not quite down to a coin toss just yet.
The Marysville Honda plant, which employs around 4,200 people and is the only builder of the Accord Coupe in the world, began production in 1982 and now produces around 440,000 vehicles each year. Last month, Honda announced a nearly $220 million investment in updates for its Anna, Ohio plant and a new assembly line in Russells Point, Ohio, both for production of their new Continuously Variable Transmission technology, set to hit production in 2013. This is part of a $500 million total investment by Honda in additions and new builds in Ohio over the last two years; Honda employs 13,500 Ohioans, and spent an additional $6 billion purchasing parts manufactured by Ohioans not directly employed by the company.
Honda also announced this winter that they planned to build a smaller factory in central Ohio to produce the Acura NSX, a small-run luxury sports car. While the plant isn’t likely to employ as many workers nor produce nearly so many cars as Honda’s Marysville location, the technology being developed for the cars is groundbreaking: second-generation electric-gas hybrids, hyper efficient and, interestingly, all-wheel drive.