LA Auto Show: Green Is 'In'
By Noel Adams
Los Angeles was having yet another bad air day as I drove the 10 freeway into down town Los Angeles, but this time it wasn’t the automobile that was the big cause. The recent wild fire up in Sylmar, combined with very dry conditions, had produced some of the worst air quality we had seen in a while. I pulled into the south parking lot of the Convention Center ready to see what the automobile manufacturers had to offer now that “Green” is in.
The first media day started with a keynote address from Carlos Ghosn (pronounced goan), president and CEO of Nissan. The first part of his talk was about the problems facing the auto industry because of the economy, repeating often how car companies were struggling to develop new technologies because of their inability to find low cost loans. It was a theme that I would hear over and over again throughout the next two days of media presentations.
In the second part of his talk he addressed the need for zero emission vehicles, saying how zero emissions was the end game that automobile manufacturers must work towards. He noted how Nissan was working in alliance with Renault to develop electric vehicles. They are also working with several foreign governments and at least two states in the US to roll out EV charging stations and put electric vehicles on sale. He said that Nissan was going to make electric vehicles available first in Oregon around 2010. Strangely he didn't mention Project Better Place even though Nissan is working closely with them.
After the Keynote address I made my way to the South Hall to see what new vehicles Nissan had to offer. The Nissan stand was packed with so many people I couldn’t even get near enough to see the cars or the presenters so I had to make do with listening to what they had to say and wait until after they had finished to actually get a look at the cars.
After listening to Mr. Ghosn's talk I was very disappointed to see that they didn't have any electric vehicles on display, not even a concept vehicle. Instead they launched the Nissan Cube, followed by the launch of the latest Z car, the 370ZX.
The Nissan Cube is a boxy four-seat car that looks like a smaller sibling to the Scion Xb. It has a quoted fuel economy of around 30mpg which isn’t too good but I have found that Nissan often understates fuel economy early on so we may see better numbers closer to spring 2009 when the cube will appear in showrooms. I couldn’t find any weight numbers for the Cube but it is supposed to be a relatively light vehicle so it might make a great platform for the next generation ACP eBox, perhaps the ACP eCube!
The 370ZX will be faster with more power and better handling than the 350 ZX but should also achieve better fuel economy. The car is expected to have a base price just under $30,000 which should make it a strong competitor to cars like the Porsche Boxter.
The next presentation was from BMW who had a curtain around the Mini E that blocked the view from about a third of the audience while they went through the presentation of the BMW vehicles. They showed the 335d diesel sedan that will meet emission standards in all three states, and a mild hybrid based on their top of the line 7 series sedan.
Finally, with the help of LA Deputy Mayor Janelle Erickson, they unveiled the new Mini E. The Mini E is a standard Mini Cooper fitted out with an all-electric drive train and lithium battery pack from AC Propulsion. The car boasts a 95mph top speed and over 160 miles range. BMW are putting 500 of these cars on the streets of LA, New York and New Jersey on a one year least costing $850. This is basically a research project to see how the cars behave in real world situations.
Next on the agenda was the presentation by VW. First they said they had started construction of a new factory in Tennessee. This will be the first time they have built cars in the US for almost 20 years. They also talked about the current economy and how their business has been flat while most manufacturers have seen a big drop in sales. Their announcements focused on their so-called clean diesel vehicles showing the Jetta Turbo Diesel and the new Toureg SUV that will come with an optional three-liter turbo charged diesel engine.
After VW had finished it was off to the West Hall to see what Honda had to offer. Honda has positioned itself as one of the leaders in more environmentally friendly cars. They currently hold second place just behind Toyota in fleet mpg, and their stand reflects this. On display were the Honda Civic Hybrid, their Civic GX CNG car, and the Clarity Fuel Cell vehicle.
Honda's presentation started with the North America launch of the concept version of their Insight hybrid. The Insight, which is supposed to be based on the Clarity but looks somewhat similar in lines to the Prius like to me, will provide the same or better fuel economy as the Civic Hybrid at a lower cost. Unlike the earlier Insight, this car will seat 5 in comfort and will come equipped with an eco drive feature that is designed to help teach the driver how to drive more fuel efficiently. Personally I expect the Insight to sell like hotcakes when it goes on sale next year. Honda said that the production version would be unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show and will go on sale in 2009.
Honda, who is one of the few manufacturers that is still pushing fuel cell vehicles, also showed the FC Sport concept fuel cell vehicle. This car, which was designed here in Southern California, has a sports car look at the front while the rear is tapered to a hexagonal form that looks a little odd to me.
Moving from Honda I went over to the Ford stand. Ford was the only one of the big three US Automakers that did a presentation this year. They had introduced the new Mustang the night before to a select group of journalists of which I wasn't included. The new mustang includes a fastback version that looks similar to the car that Steve McQueen drove in Bullet. The Mustang is an American Icon and I am sure that it will continue to be one of the big sellers for Ford.
At the show itself they introduced the new Ford Fusion, including a hybrid version of the car. The new hybrid Ford Fusion is a mid-sized sedan that is directly in competition with the Camry and Accord. Ford appears to have done an excellent job with the fusion, which they claim, can best the Camry hybrid by 6mpg in overall fuel economy. They did claim that this was the most fuel efficient mid sized sedan sold in the US, completely ignoring the fact that the Prius is also now classified as mid-sized. They also have a Mercury Milan version of this car.
Their announcement also included a new feature called “Smart Gauge” that will provide instrumentation to help the driver get better fuel economy. They said they were the first automaker to provide this and will actually have the feature on sale before Honda rolls it out on the Insight, but it is unfortunate that Honda stole their thunder by announcing a similar feature just minutes before.
When Ford had finished I skipped the Mazda and Porsche presentations and wandered over to the Toyota exhibit to take a look around. Toyota was supposed to be announcing a CNG vehicle at the auto show but they didn't have any announcements scheduled. I walked around their stand and eventually found the Camry CNG hybrid concept vehicle on display. The vehicle looks very much the same as the standard Camry but uses CNG instead of gasoline. CNG is very clean so if you marry this to Toyota's hybrid synergy drive you should get an extremely clean car. Let’s hope they get this into production soon.
I was still disappointed to see that Toyota still hasn’t crafted a hybrid minivan for the US market. They have had the Estima on sale in Japan for several years now and have also made it available in Europe. I think that an hybrid minivan would be a big seller here in the US.
After lunch it was back to West Hall to see what Lexus had to show. They unveiled two new versions of their popular RX SUV. They showed off the new Lexus RX 350, an update to the RX 330 that looks the same on the outside but is slightly larger and has a more powerful engine mated to a six speed automatic transmission.
Lexus also announced the RX 450h hybrid that is a follow on the RX 400h. This car has an updated hybrid synergy drive system that increased power by 20hp to 295bhp. So far there is no indication of fuel economy but hopefully they will have improved mpg over the 400h. The RX 450h should be in showrooms next spring.
From Lexus, I moved on to see what Hyundai had on show. They started out by telling the gathered crowed of journalists that they planned on being top of the list when it came to fleet mileage. Their plan is to meet the 2020 CAFE standard of 35mpg fleet average by 2015. To start on this road they introduced Blue Drive.
Blue Drive will feature a whole slew of new things including higher fuel economy versions of the Accent and Elantra in 2009, A hybrid version of the Sonata featuring LG Lithium Polymer batteries in 2010, a new crossover using a turbo-charged direct injection gasoline engine, and for the future, a plug-in hybrid and then on to hydrogen fuel cells which it plans to begin selling in Korea in 2012.
Hyundai also announced the Genesis Forest Project. This is an initiative, funded by Hyundai, which will restore a portion of the Brazilian rain forest back to its natural state. The project will provide an equivalent amount of CO2 offsets to cover the amount emitted by the first year sales of Hyundai's new luxury Genesis sedan.
This year I has set aside two days to attend the LA Auto show instead of my usual one day, so After Hyundai had finished I took a walk through the concourse section to look at the sports cars before wrapping things up for the day and heading for home.
Down in the Concourse hall is where the expensive automobiles get to strut their stuff. The first thing that I noticed was the absence of Morgan. The tiny English sports car maker had been a fixture at the LA Auto Show for the last few years but I guess times are hard so they were not on display outside the Concourse hall as they had been in previous years.
Ferrari and Lamborghini were both there of course, complete with a bevy of gorgeous models to show of their cars. Bentley and Rolls Royce also had stands showing off their cars. At the moment I prefer the look of the Bentleys, Rolls Royce look far too large for my taste but they did have a Yellow convertible that looked pretty good. There have been rumors that Rolls Royce is working on an electric car but there was no sign of one on display.
I was also expecting that Lotus would have something electric on display. After all, they are building the Roadster for Tesla and are also working with ZAP on the design for the Alias, but they chose to launch the Evora. The largest of their line of sports, and the only one with a 2+2 configuration, the Evora offers a top speed of 160mph, 0-60 in less than 5 seconds, while turning in a fuel economy rating of around 24mpg.
Thursday turned out to be a nice sunny day, not that unusual here in LA, and the air quality was improving now that the wild fires have been knocked down. Traffic was a little heavy on the freeway but I was there in plenty of time for the first event, the Green Car of the Year award.
The Green Car of the Year award is presented each year by Green Car Journal. I have never failed to be disappointed by Green Car Journal's idea of a green car and this year was no exception; they gave the award to VW for their Jetta TDI. It seems somewhat unfortunate that this award was presented just a week or so after a report, released by researchers at Cal State Fullerton that tied particulate emissions to increased death rates in Southern California. One of the biggest culprits they identified was, of course, diesel powered vehicles.
I fail to understand why they would make an award to a Diesel, which while getting good mileage at 40mph highway/29mpg in the city, and therefore low CO2 emissions, can still barely meet California's emissions standards, when the zero emission Tesla roadster went on sale for the first time in 2008.
After the presentation I went to sign up for the ride and drives that were also being run by Green Car Journal. After standing in a fairly short line for what seemed like an eternity I finally got to register then went to book some test drives. The i-Miev had several slots open so I was able to book an early test drive time. However, there was only one Mini E and this was already full up, as was the Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle. Most of the other cars I had already driven or were cars I wasn't really interested in, like the diesel cars, so I ended up with a test drive of just the i-Miev.
The i-Miev is a really great car that is a pleasure to drive. The car is perfectly suited to getting around town but with a range of over 70 miles and a pretty good top speed it can meet the needs of most commuters, whether they commute on surface streets or the freeway.
The car I drove was one of the vehicles that are being used by Southern California Edison for fleet testing. Since this is really a Japanese car it is right hand drive. Now I am used to driving right hand drive cars on the left side of the road but for some reason if you put me on the right side of the road I get confused about controls so I ended up turning on the wipers almost every time I tried to signal a turn. Fortunately I managed to keep to the right hand side of the road.
At low speed there was no sign of the cogging I have experienced with the RAV4 EV. The car accelerated at a decent clip but has been current limited to prevent burning rubber. The steering was light and precise and the ride was very smooth and quiet even on the rough roads around the LA Convention Center. The regen was really well integrated into the brake system so when I backed of the accelerator mild regen kicked in slowing the car slightly just like I would expect if I backed off the accelerator on my Prius. Regen is applied fully when you apply the brakes although it was difficult to tell for sure since the car was very quite even when regen was working and I couldn’t hear the tell tale whine that often accompanies this function.
The I-MiEV is one of the best EVs I have ever driven and I really hope that Mitsubishi bring the car to the US. The i-MiEV should be on sale in Japan starting next year.
On my way back from the parking lot where the test drives were being organized, I passed Kentia Hall and noticed that it was open. Kentia Hall is where the after-market and small manufacturers show their wares and this is the first time I have seen it open during media days.
Most of the vendors were still setting up when I toured the hall but I did run into Louis Weiss of Electric Automobiles LLC based in Van Nuys, CA. Electric Automobiles were showing the Intimate, a vehicle designed for doing those short trips around the neighborhood. The car is a two-seat wedge shaped hatchback that has plenty of room in the back for groceries or the kid’s soccer gear. The car is still in the prototype development state so actual specs are not really available yet. I did note however that the target speed for this vehicle was 40mph, which would mean crash testing, so we can't expect the car to be out any time soon.
The only other electric related vehicles in Kentia Hall at the time of my visit was Eco-Tech who were showing their Eco Easy Rider line of electric bikes.
After leaving Kentia Hall I made my way back to South Hall to check out some of the other exhibitors. GM, because of their current precarious situation, had their top executives on their way to Washington to try and get loans from the Federal Government and had decided not to present at the LA Auto Show.
I took a walk around their stand and checked out some of their vehicles. The first think I noticed was the production version of the Chevy Volt being displayed at the auto show for the first time. I overheard someone being interviewed in front of the Volt saying it was pretty much ready for the showroom so we may hear more during the Detroit show in January.
GM did have some interesting vehicles there including a whole block of hybrids including the Malibu two-mode hybrid and the Saturn Aura hybrid. They didn’t appear to have a version of the Saturn View plug-in car that they are developing though. They were also supposed to have the hybrid version of the Cadillac Escalade on display but I never did find it. They did have a couple of interesting concept vehicles to look at.
The Riviera Concept was an aggressive looking four-seat coupe that had a single gull wing that lifted up a large enough portion of the side of the car so that access into or out of both rows of seats would be very easy. Saturn also had an interesting plug-in concept vehicle called the Flextreme that reminded me of a stretch version of the Prius and featured suicide rear doors. It also came with two Segways tucked under the rear that are charged at the same time as the car and can be easily removed to provide mobility once you reach your destination. One wag in the crowd of onlookers suggested that people would never have to walk again.
Chrysler is another company that had decided not to announce any vehicles at this years show. They had recently announced three new concept vehicles, a plug-in hybrid minivan, a plug in hybrid jeep, and an all-electric sports car. All thee of these vehicles were on display and each one looked like it was already production ready. I hope that Chrysler can manage to get these cars into the showroom.
They also had an all-electric beach buggy concept vehicle from Jeep that may be aimed at the Brazilian market. The vehicle, called the Jeep Renegade, is a two-seat car that looks like a cross between a Jeep and one of the old VW based beach buggies. It looks like the sort of car you might want to pile in with your surfboard and head down to Baja for the weekend. They also had the Dodge ZEO concept battery electric vehicle that looks more like a sports car than a sedan and has a 2+2 configuration. The car is said to have a range of 250 miles and a top speed of 130mph.
Chrysler had only two GEMs on display but what was conspicuous by its absence was the recently announced Peapod. I was really hoping to get a look at this next generation NEV but it appears that this project may end up being still born.
As I wondered around the South Hall taking pictures my cell phone rang. It was the lady who makes the reservations for the ride and drive telling me that they had a second Mini E and I could go down to the parking lot and get a test drive. I rushed down there and found a Mini E waiting. I went up to the lady who was giving the test rides but she told me that they only had one car and the next group was already waiting to take the car out. She said I could wait around to see if there were any no-shows or I could try the BMW stand where they were conducting their own test drives. I went back up to the South Hall and talked to Sean from BMW who did have a slot available but unfortunately too late in the day to meet my schedule so I had to pass. I went back down to the parking lot to see if there was a chance there would be no-shows but when I got down there the next two appointments were already waiting in line.
I did notice another mini down a close to the Convention Center entrace. This turned out to be from Eco Driving USA who were giving short lessons in eco driving techniques. They had a slot available right away so I was able to take the car, a six speed manual transmission Mini Cooper, out for a drive. This in itself was an adventure since it had been almost ten years since I last drove a stick shift and I had never driven a six speed before so it took a while to get used to changing gears. The mini was quite forgiving and the clutch handled smoothly so I was spared the embarrassment of bunny hop starts.
They had me drive up onto the 110 Freeway and exit out by Dodger Stadium where we stopped to measure my fuel economy at just shy of 30mpg. Then they had me drive back and gave me instructions on when to shift, when to back off the accelerator and how to keep more distance so that you don't have to slow down and speed up as much because of other drivers. The whole concept is to maintain momentum when driving. This is not the extreme driving techniques like drafting and taking corners at high speed used by hyper-milers but a way of improving fuel economy that can also contribute to safer driving.
When we got back to the Convention Center I had managed the return trip with fuel economy at 38mpg, a considerable improvement over the first leg of the trip. This wasn't as good as you might imagine since the drive out was mostly up hill while the drive back was mostly down hill which contributed greatly to the better fuel economy. Having said that, I have been adding the practices I learned to my driving since the auto show and I do appear to be getting about 2mpg better fuel economy in the Prius.
After the ride and drive I went back up to the North Hall to take a few more photographs then started out for Home.
2009 will be a critical year for automakers and it will be interesting to see if any of them fall by the wayside. While I am not a big fan of the big three I think that letting them fail is going to be a big mistake so I hope this lame duck congress steps up and helps them survive these hard times. It shouldn’t be done without strings. There must be accountability on how the money is spent, but failure should not be an option.
If this year's LA Auto show is an indication I think that we are going to see an explosion of more fuel efficient cars and trucks coming from all the major auto makers. The run up of oil prices earlier this year means they finally appear to have caught on to the fact that they can't keep going with Business as usual and need to move towards zero emission cars. I expect 2009 to be a very exciting year for the electric vehicle community.
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