LA Auto Show 2009: Surprises, Disappointments
By Noel Adams
On Thursday morning it was a cool 50 degrees as I drove back to the Convention Center. Thursday is the day for ride and drives so I had decided to skip most of the presentations, which were being given in general by small specialty car makers like Allard and Spyker, and spend the time test driving a few cars and taking a second look at exhibition halls.
The first order of business was to get signed up for the test drives. After last year, where I attended the green car of the year award ceremony first then got in line only to find that most of the cars were already booked, I decided to skip the ceremony and get to the front of the line.
It turned out to be a good move. Following tradition the as I like to call it “not so green car of the year award” was once again given to a diesel, the Audi A3 TDI. I just don’t understand why Green Car Journal keeps giving these awards to diesel vehicles because when you look at overall emissions they are just not that clean. The A3 TDI manages a respectable 42mpg on the highway and 30mpg in the city. Now compare this with the competition, the 2010 Prius with an EPA fuel rating of 51mpg City, 48mpg on the highway, and the stuff coming out of the tail pipe is much cleaner too. It’s hard to see how the Audi comes out best here.
In the end I found out that I was only going to be able to sign up to drive three vehicles so I chose the Electric Ford Focus, The Ford Escape plug-in hybrid, and the Mitsubishi i Car. The drive time I got for the Ford Focus overlapped with the time of the Hyundai presentation so I skipped that and walked down to the parking lot where the ride and drives were waiting.
I got there about fifteen minutes early but the person scheduled to drive the car at that time hadn’t shown up so Steve Daleiden, who is Ford’s Battery Electric Vehicle power train systems engineer, showed me what the car looked like under the hood and in the trunk.
The car that they were using for test drives is really a test mule based on the current Ford Focus body, not the new body style that you see being used on the Jay Leno show. Under the hood the engine has been replaced by a large metal box that contains the controller. Most of the trunk space and the area normally occupied by the fuel tank are taken up by the battery pack. Charging is done via a receptacle sitting where you would normally find the fuel filler cap.
I also asked how the change in vendor from Smith’s Electric Vehicles to Azure Dynamics would affect the rollout of the Transit Connect Van but Steve didn’t know the answer to that one. He did tell me however that they were on track to roll out the Ford Focus EV as in mid 2011.
The inside of the Ford Focus EV was just like the standard Focus. There was no flashy instrumentation, just a speedometer, a gage that showed energy flow, a battery state of charge indicator and temperature gage that we left over from the standard focus but didn’t do anything. The car was started by inserting a key into the ignition and turning it clockwise all the way. There was the faintest of clicks followed by a slight humming sound, which Steve explained was the vacuum pump, and the car was ready to go.
I pressed lightly on the accelerator and the car moved silently forward. I had to drive slowly at first to make sure I didn’t plow down any of the people who were coming and going from test driving other vehicles. I noticed a very slight cogging at really low speed but this was much less noticeable than I have seen when driving a RAV4 EV. I mentioned this to Steve and he told me that they will be working to damp that out on the production vehicle.
Once out of the parking lot the car accelerated smoothly up to speed. Handling was pretty much what you would expect on a Ford Focus. The power assisted steering felt firm and precise, in fact very similar to the feel on my Prius. The ride was also pretty good giving a nice comfortable ride over the bumpy streets of down town LA.
Once I got out onto Venice Blvd I was able to punch the accelerator. Acceleration is brisk, better than I would expect in the standard Ford Focus. I turned onto Alvarado and easily merged into traffic. A right turn took me back along Pico and back towards the Convention Center. As I approached Figueroa the light turned red so a backed off the accelerator and the car started to coast. Steve told me that they hadn’t yet set up the regenerative braking but that too would appear on the production model.
He told me that the car I was driving gets a range of about 80 miles but they would push that up to 100 miles for the production version.
All too soon I was back at the Convention Center. In my opinion, if Ford can get this car to market at a competitive price then they will have a winner. Steve told me that it was going to be his biggest challenge.
I was back at the parking lot just in time to take the Ford Escape Hybrid out on a run. The Escape hybrid I drove was one of the test fleet being used by Southern California Edison. It looks like the current generation Escape hybrid in every respect but has a larger battery pack that allows the car to go up to 30 miles per charge. Like current third party Plug-in hybrid conversions of the Escape and Prius, the battery only part of the driving is limited to speed below about 40mph.
The car is started by inserting the key in the ignition and turning it clockwise as far as it will go. There was no sound at start up so, even after driving the Prius for almost 5 years, I was still unsure if the car was on or not.
I drove out of the parking lot and found the car drove quite smoothly and stayed in electric mode. An interesting feature of the car was the rev counter. This looked like a standard rev counter but had a green crescent at the bottom where you would normally find 0 revs. While the rev counter was in the green area the car was running battery only, once the engine came on the rev counter would measure the speed the engine was turning.
I drove the same route as I had with the Focus and found that the Escape Hybrid also gave me an excellent ride on bumpy LA streets. The handling was a bit more effort as you would expect with the larger SUV but the power steering was still light to the touch and precise. When I got the car onto Venice Blvd I punched the accelerator again and got the car quickly up to 45mph. I was wondering why the engine hadn’t come on until the Ford rep who was riding with me pointed out the rev counter which was now sitting around 1500 rpm. The transition to the ICE motor had been so flawless and the engine so quite I just hadn’t noticed it happen. I was coming up quickly on another driver who was test driving the Audi A3 TDI and was driving it at about 25mph so I had to brake. Again I didn’t hear a sound as the regen braking kicked in. I took a look at the rev counter and it still read around 1500 rpm and it kept reading this level until I brought the car to a stop at a red light. Once the engine had turned off it stayed off when I accelerated away from the light and I managed to keep it off for the rest of the test drive.
I asked the Ford rep about this and he told me that the car was probably doing engine braking. I think it was more likely that the car was trying to warm up the catalytic converter since I had cruised at 25mph for several blocks. The Ford rep then pulled up the fuel consumption display on the screen. The display showed bar graphs that indicated about 120mpg for most of the trip with one bar at about 20mpg where I had really punched the accelerator. I found the display screen was set too low for me to read without taking my eyes totally off the road.
When we got back to the Convention Center the NAV system lost contact with the satellites and started to search for them. The Ford rep tried to show me other screens but the system seemed to be locked out searching for a satellite and so I wasn’t able to get a demo.
Ford hasn’t set a date for the introduction of the Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid since, as Steve Daleiden told me, “a pure electric is easier to do”. I could see that there was things that need to be done before the Escape Hybrid is ready for the general public, like being able to keep the car in electric mode at higher speeds and changing the location of the touch screen display to make it easier to read and use while driving, but the 30 mile range is a nice compromise and I think that the car would work for many people in its current form so I hope they introduce this plug-in hybrid sooner rather than later.
Back at the parking lot I had a wait for my Mitsubishi test drive so I took the opportunity to take a walk around Kentia hall where the aftermarket sellers and specialty car companies were setting up. This year there was only one company that had an electric car on display, Capstone. Capstone is the primary builder of micro-turbines in the US and they have been placing these in hybrid trucks for many years.
They were showing the CMT-380 supercar for the first time. This two seat sports car is still in the concept state but is a plug-in hybrid that uses a capstone micro turbine to as the range extender. The car has a Kokum battery pack that is split with 60% if the pack going under the hood and the remaining 40% under the seats. In the trunk is the micro turbine. This micro turbine can be run on a variety of fuels including diesel, bio-diesel, and kerosene.
The car can run up to 80 miles on a single charge of the battery pack and once the batteries are depleted the micro turbine kicks in to extend the range up to 500 miles before the car needs to be refueled. The car is designed for a top speed of 150 mph and a 0-60 time of 3.9 seconds. While this car isn’t going to be a daily driver for most people, it will fit nicely into the low volume high performance car sector.
I went back to the parking lot but Mitsubishi still hadn’t arrived by the time my driving slot came along. Disappointed I returned to the sign up desk but by this time they didn’t have any slots left on any of the other cars I wanted to drive except one that was at the same time as Fisker were going to do their presentation so I grabbed a Latte and took a stroll around the West Hall to see if I could find a Chrysler representative but still no luck.
The one presentation I didn’t want to miss was Fisker’s so I walked over to Concourse hall where they would be presenting. There was a big open space just outside Concourse hall and this is where you would expect to find the big sports car makers like Ferrari and Lamborghini but these two companies, along with Maserati and Bentley were absent this year. Since LA must be their biggest market this does not bode well for these manufacturers. Also absent this year was Nissan which I think is odd seeing as Southern California is going to be one of the first markets for the Leaf electric car and this would have been a perfect opportunity to let the media do test drives.
Fisker have been going through the crash test process on their Karma plug-in Hybrid for some time now and the car has been shown at several auto shows so I wanted to see what they would be announcing this time around.
Heinrich Fisker started by talking about the $528 Million DOE load that they are going to use to develop their next vehicle which will be a lower cost sedan, a project they have dubbed Nina. He also mentioned how they had already built up a series of dealerships with 45 dealers in the USA and 100 dealers throughout Europe.
The Fisker Karma has a 22KWHr lithium battery pack that will allow a 50 mile pure electric range before the ICE engine kicks in to extend the range to 250 miles before refueling. The car is driven through a single gear and offers a top speed of 125 miles and a 0-60 time of 6 seconds. There are no animal byproducts used in the car and even the wood they use is being taken for trees burned in the California wild fires. Base price is $87,900 for the four door sedan. A Convertible version is also available.
Fiskers big announcement was a production date for the Karma. They will begin delivering of the Karma to dealers starting in September 2010. 2010 production is already sold out but they are planning on building about 1500 vehicles per year beginning in 2011. Project Nina should be ready for showrooms in 2012 and Fisker have a very ambitious plan to ramp production of this vehicle up to 100,000 per year.
I left this year’s LA Auto show with a feeling of optimism. Most car makers appear to be pushing to meet the upcoming 35mpg fleet average. They appear to have gotten the message that cars need to transition from oil based fuels to electric. Most manufacturers now have a hybrid car either in production of close to production. Even companies like BMW and Daimler now have hybrids in their line-up. We will have to wait for the end of 2001 before we see electric cars making their way into showrooms and we won’t really see any momentum in the EV world until 2011. I can’t wait for next year’s show.
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