Detroit Auto Show: the highlights

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Reports out of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week are calling this "the year of the electron." And though the Bay area was gunning for center of the electric car universe, Detroit just may have an edge this week. Automakers from across the globe, the Big Three included, are touting hybrid, plug-in, or "extended range electric" cars in a scaled back display of what's around the corner. Some of the announcements with the biggest splashes:

Local batteries

Often lost in the talk of charge times, 0-60 numbers, and range of electric vehicles, the Los Angeles Times writes, is where these new electric car batteries are coming from. GM on Monday announced plans for a new Michigan plant just for assembling the batteries for its upcoming Chevy Volt plug-in electric hybrid. For now, that plant will use cells from Korean firm LG Chem, but "GM is getting back in the battery business," Chairman and Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said.

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Cadillac Converj

An electric car from Cadillac. Yes, Cadillac. In an effort to prove that a car can be both luxurious and easy on the environment, GM took the wraps off its concept Caddy that LA Times auto columnist Dan Neil calls "a gorgeous, provocative, heated diamond of a sports coupe that could – just theoretically – contain the same range-extended gas-electric hybrid powertrain from the Volt."

Toyota Prius

The 2010 version of the highest profile hybrid around gets a redesigned body and a nine percent increase in fuel efficiency. Available for the first time is a solar roof option – not for running the air conditioner as rumored, but to run the ventilation system when the car's parked, keeping it cool. And speaking of parking, the next generation Prius gets a self-parking option that makes parallel parking a breeze.

Honda Insight

The original hybrid – from way back in 1999 – gets reborn for 2010 with a new design and hopes that it can bring Honda back to the forefront of fuel-efficient car sales. Of interest to hypermilers is the car's new "Ecological Drive Assist System" that turns achieving peak efficiency into an interactive experience. The speedometer changes color and the dashboard displays images to correspond with green driving practices. Think traffic meets Tamagotchi.

Chevrolet Spark

GM is thinking big in rolling out this small car based on 2007's Beat concept. Slated to arrive in 2011 in Asia, South America, Europe, and the US, the forward looking city car is GM's entrant in the efficient small car market. Expect it to get somewhere around 40 m.p.g. and to sell like hotcakes.

Mini Cooper E – and drop-top

The 2010 version of the cute and popular Mini Cooper convertible cleverly conceals the rollover protection bars behind the rear seats – a cosmetic change, but one that improves the top-down look of the car. And buyers of the 2010 model can track time spent with the top down with a standard "Openometer."

The electric version of the fixed-roof Cooper debuted at the show and is being leased to 500 drivers in LA and New York, with "just enough storage space for a gym bag, and a range of only 120 miles before recharging, all for triple the cost of the gasoline-powered model," according to Bloomberg. But drivers of "mom's taxi" need not apply – the gas-free Mini sacrifices its back seat to make room for the 570 lb battery pack.

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