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Kia POP electric urban concept car.
Kia POP electric urban concept car. Photos by the author.

Exclusive Report: 2010 LA Auto Show - Part II

Part 2 of Noel Adams Exclusive Report

By Noel Adams

Read Part 1

The second media day at the LA Auto show started a half hour later than the first day and it is amazing how many more cars were on I10 going into downtown LA that morning. The sky was gray and there was a chill in the air as I pulled into the south parking lot at the Convention Center. My first stop was to grab breakfast and review the day’s schedule.

First up was Nielsen Automotive who presented the Green Marketer of the Year award. The Green Marketer of the Year award basically goes to the company whose ad campaign managed to convince more people, based on a Nielsen survey, that their cars were green. The nominees were Mercedes-Benz for their campaign on their S400 Hybrid, Toyota for their campaign for the Toyota Prius, Honda for their campaign for the CR-Z, Ford for their campaigns on the Fusion hybrid and Fiesta, and Chevrolet for their Volt campaign. The winner was Ford.

Following the presentation, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa came on stage. He started by welcoming everyone to the 103rd LA Auto Show and mentioned how important the auto show is to LA, accounting for one third of annual Convention Center revenue. He also said that auto dealers are the single largest contributor to sales tax for the city.

He went on to say that he wanted to “Transform LA from the car capital of the world to the EV capital of the world”. To accomplish this, the city has streamlined the permit process for people installing electric vehicle charging stations so that a permit can now be obtained in seven days or less. The city’s utility, LADWP, will also be offering a 2.5 cent per kilowatt hour rate incentive for people to charge their cars during off peak times. Charging overnight apparently helps to utilize wind power resources better.

LADWP will be upgrading public charging infrastructure over the next two years. He told us that “LA must act regionally to coordinate education and outreach” so they will be working with other cities in the area to promote EV infrastructure. Finally he sent this message to the carmakers building electric cars, “We will be ready”.

Following Mayor Villaraigosa onto the stage was a joint presentation by Southern California Edison and The Electric Drive Transportation Association. They introduced a new web site, www.goelectricdrive.com which was developed jointly by the two organizations. This web site is designed to help a person decide if an electric car will work for them. You can plug in your zip code into the resource locator and it will tell you what incentives you can find for electric cars in your area. The site is also full of information about EV charging and about some of the electric cars that are coming to market soon.

After the presentation I got to talk with Pedro Pizarro, Executive Vice President for Power Operations at Southern California Edison. Southern California Edison provides power to the more than 100 cities outside of LA that make up the Greater Los Angeles conurbation. They have the unenviable task of trying to work with all these cities to get expedited permit processes for EV charger installation in place.

They are currently focused on this rather than on rolling out public charger infrastructure since they view overnight home charging as much more important than having public chargers available.

Southern California Edison also has what is probably the largest fleet of on-road electric vehicles in the world at the moment with over 250 vehicles mostly made up of RAV4 EVs. They are also participating in trials of the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and the Plug-in Ford Escape Hybrid. I asked Mr. Pizarro about plans to expand the electric vehicle fleet and he told me that they are “working with a number of vendors to provide real world usage information on electric vehicles by participating in various trials”. They will continue to expand their electric vehicle fleet.

I skipped the Green Car of the Year award to stand in line to get a shot at test driving some of the new electric cars that are about to be launched. I wasn’t so worried about the Green Car of the Year since for the last few years Green Car Journal has been giving this award to diesels even against competition like the 3rd generation Prius. This year there wasn’t a diesel in sight. The five nominees were The 2011 Chevy Volt, 2011 Ford Fiesta, 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, and the 2011 Nissan Leaf. The award went to the Chevy Volt. I’m not sure why they awarded the Green Car of the Year award to the Chevy Volt, which was not clean enough to receive an AT-PZEV rating with the California Air Resource Board, over the Nissan Leaf which is pure electric, but I can see the allure of unlimited range for those, like most of the judging panel, that are not EV drivers.

I had hoped to sign up to test drive the Coda electric car but they didn’t have a car in the ride and drive. Another car I hoped to test drive was the Wheego LiFe but there was no sign-up sheet for them either. They did have a car in the ride and drive but they had pre-allocated the drive times to selected journalists. The Nissan Leaf was available so I jumped on the opportunity to drive that, and I also signed up for the Volvo C30 DRIVe and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV.

I had to hustle over to the South Hall to get to the Hyundai press conference. John Krafcik, President and CEO of Hyundai Motors America, talked about the exceptional year that Hyundai has had. While auto sales in general are up, Hyundai’s have been booming; up 36% even though they had reduced incentive spending, beating the sales record they set in 2007.

He showed an example of the new owners manual for the Sonata, which will come on an iPad instead of the traditional paper book. He also mentioned that production of the Sonata Hybrid would be starting shortly.

Hyundai is determined to be the car company with the highest fleet mileage numbers and they are currently targeting 50mpg by 2025. To move toward this they announced the new Elantra compact sedan. The Elantra is in the compact segment but actually offers internal space to match many midsized cars. The car is designed around a new platform that uses steal alloys to reduce weight without compromising strength. The 1.8 liter engine has also been made lighter and when mated with their six speed automatic transmission results in fuel economy ratings of 29mpg city and 40 mpg on the highway.

With a starting price of just $14,830 the new Elantra should be a hit with American car buyers. It is already in production and will start shipping to dealers before the end of the year.

I skipped the Audi and Infinity press conferences and took a few moments to take a stroll around the south hall and visit a few of the car makers that weren’t having press conferences this year.

My first stop was at Fisker. Last year Fisker had announced that they would be starting customer shipments this august but so far there has been no shipments being made. Fisker had just one car on display. I talked to one of the engineers there and he told me that this car was the finalized production model but it was still undergoing crash testing. He told me that they are now projecting first customer deliveries for February or March next year. I asked about the convertible and he told me that they were currently working on a lower cost sedan and that while they still planned on producing the convertible it wouldn’t hit the streets until after the new sedan was ready.

I took a walk over to the Coda exhibit. They too had only one car on display but I was happy to see it wasn’t the gray car that they had been showing. It was bright yellow car with a slightly different look at the front than the earlier prototype. The big news from Coda is that they are delaying the start of sales until the second half of 2011. They plan to sell the cars in California first and their stand at the Auto Show is supposed to reflect what their first sales location right here in Los Angeles will look like. They have also done deals with both Enterprise Car Rental, who will provide service to Coda owners as well as renting the cars, and with Hertz who will also offer the car for rental at some locations here in Southern California.

Next I hurried over to the Smart display and found that they had a Smart ED sitting there. I asked the Smart representative about their current program and he told me that they have about 100 of the cars still available. They can be leased through Smart dealerships for 4 years at $599 per month and more than half the Smart dealers nation wide are participating in the trial..

It was almost time for my Mitsubishi i-MiEV test drive so I hurried down to the South hall parking lot where the test drives started. When I got down there I found a Mitsubishi i-MiEV waiting. I was disappointed to see that it was right hand drive so it wasn’t the American spec vehicle that was being announced later in the day. There was also no representative from Mitsubishi there to conduct the test drive. I waited around for a while and eventually one of the ride and drive organizers from Green Car Journal came and told me that they didn’t know where the person from Mitsubishi was but offered to take me on a test drive himself. I had driven an i-MiEV a couple of years before, but it was a fun car to drive so I decided to take him up on his offer.

I really like the i-MiEV, it is small and nippy with plenty of pickup when you hit the accelerator. It is pretty much the ideal city car. Being originally from England, the only thing I have to be careful about with a right hand drive vehicle is to make sure I don’t fall into English driving mode and head for the left side of the street. Fortunately with only right turns on the course around the Convention Center, I was able to keep on the right side of the road both figuratively and literally. Last time I drove the i-MiEV I kept turning on the wipers instead of the indicators but this time I only did that once. This wasn’t really a test drive since there was nobody there to answer questions about the car, it was just a quick trip around the block for the pure pleasure of driving an electric car.

With the test drive over I rushed to the West hall for Mitsubishi’s press conference.

Yoshikazu Nakamura, Corporate Manager of Mitsubishi’s EV Business, talked about how Mitsubishi had started development of their first electric car in 1966 and had released their first EV in Japan in 1971. In 2005 the decision was made to build an electric car for mass production. More than 300,000 miles of testing were done before the i-MiEV went on sale in Japan in 2009. There are currently over 4,000 i-MiEV in operation world wide and sales will begin in Europe soon. He projected that plug-in hybrids and electric cars will make up 20% of Mitsubishi car sales by 2020.

He went on to remark that they needed to make significant changes to the i-MiEV for the US market, then he unveiled the Mitsubishi I, the American Spec version of the i-MiEV. The I is about a foot longer than the i-MiEV and about six inches wider. It will also support 110V and 220V charging as well at the same DC fast charging system that is being rolled out for the Nissan Leaf. The 2010 Mitsubishi I will go on sale in California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington State starting in the fall of next year and should be available across the nation by 2013. Base price for the I will be $30,000 which puts it a couple of thousand dollars cheaper than the Leaf.

Mitsubishi also announced an agreement between themselves, Eaton Corporation, and Best Buy. Eaton Corporation will build chargers to be used with the I, while Best Buy, who already have a small test fleet of i-MiEV, will do charger installation and support.

The final press conference I planned on attending was Wheego down in Kentia Hall. Mike McQuary President and CEO of Wheego, started out by asking what 109 meant. No, it’s wasn’t how many thousands dollars bills would be required to buy a Tesla Roadster, it was the air quality index in the LA Basin. 109 means that the air is unhealthful for seniors and young children and is actually not a bad value compared with what we often see in Southern California. He went on to say that Wheego was set up to be customer oriented. They didn’t want to have the most customers they wanted to have “the happiest customers”. Mr. McQuary said that if a customer called him to ask a question he would return the phone call.

He then announced the Wheego LiFe. The capital F in LiFe is not a typo the car uses a Lithium (chemical symbol Li) Iron (chemical symbol Fe) battery and the name is the combination of the two chemical symbols. The battery type shouldn’t be confused with Lithium Ion, which is a totally different chemistry that offers better energy density that Lithium Iron but also requires much more management to stop over or undercharging the batteries, both of which can have disastrous results.

The LiFE will be distributed through 22 dealerships around the nation or it can be ordered directly from the Wheego web site. Unlike the other electric cars coming to market over the next year or so the LiFe will be available in all fifty states. For those not near a dealership Wheego will send an engineer with the car when it is delivered, who will spend the day explaining how everything works. They will also send an engineer out to fix problems if the owner of the car isn’t near a dealership.

The cars will come with a 110V charging cable supplied by Clipper Creek and a 220V charging station, the same Aerovironment charger being used by Nissan for the Leaf, will be available for those that need faster charge times. The two seat car will offer a top speed of 70mph and a range of about 100 miles. The car will start at a base price of $32,995.

The Bodies for the LiFe are built in China then shipped over to the US where they are completed by adding the electrical components, batteries, etc. Mr, McQuary said that about 75% of their content is sourced in the US. He added that there was a transport currently making its way to Long Beach with bodies and once they arrived, factory in Ontario, CA has all the other parts required to start production. I was told that there was a ship on its way from China in early October at the Santa Monica Alt Fuel Expo so I am not sure how much credence I put in that. Once production starts it will take Wheego about six weeks to fill all their outstanding orders. They plan to build about 2,000 cars next year and Mr. McQuary admitted that he didn’t have financing to build the cars in high volume at the moment.

If you live outside those few states where the current crop of EVs are being sold, and don’t want to wait two or three years until vehicles are available in your area, then the Wheego LiFe might well be the electric car for you.

I had to rush from the Wheego presentation to make my appointment for a test drive of the Volvo C30 DRIVe. The test drive was fun although the DRIVe certainly didn’t have the neck snapping acceleration I have seen in some electric cars. See Test Driving the Volvo C30 on EV World for more information about my test drive. Volvo plan to build 1,000 C30 DRIVe next year and these will be placed in evaluation programs in Sweden, Belgium and here in the USA.

I had a bit of time to wait before my test drive of the Nissan Leaf, so I walked back to Kentia hall to have a talk with Rick Woodbury, president of Commuter Cars maker of the Tango. Rick had two Tangos on display this year. An orange was one of those owned by Google while a Green one was owned by an individual and was available for sale at around $150,000.

I could tell that Rick was very frustrated. To build the Tango in volume, so the price can get down to reasonable levels, he needs to get enough financial backing to go through development and set up production facilities. Until then he must keep building the Tango in small volume. He knows that he has a good idea; he told me that he has use lane splitting to shave almost half off the 30 minute commute into Beverly Hills from down town LA.

Last time I talked to Rick he was using Lead Acid batteries on the early version of the Tango and part of the design was to keep the weight low which allows incredible handling. Now that he has switched to the much lighter lithium batteries he actually has to add weight to maintain the handling without the car being prone to roll over. That is the exact opposite of what most car makers are trying to do, make the cars lighter. The Tango is made to get you from A to B as quickly as possible and to cut down congestion on the freeways and in parking lots while doing so.

I left the Tango behind and rushed off to my final event for the day, the test drive of the Nissan Leaf. From the drivers seat the Leaf looks even more space aged than my Prius. Like my Prius it has a smart key system so I adjusted the seat, pushed on the brake with my right foot, and pressed the power button. There is, of course, no noise when the car powers up I just had to watch the instrument display to see that the car is ready.

The gear shift is a joy stick that sits on the center console. I moved it toward me then back and the car was in drive. I tried to adjust the steering wheel but I found that even a small adjustment partially blocked the instrument panel so I put it back into its original position. I pressed gently on the accelerator and moved slowly out of the parking space then made my way from the parking lot out onto the street. Once on the open road, I was able to push the car harder. In standard mode acceleration is about what you would expect from a compact sedan. It isn’t going to fire up any Torque junkies but it is very acceptable for a family car and it had more than enough oomph to handle the traffic on the streets of down town LA.

The power steering was nice and firm and actually gave me a feel for the road.

I took the joy stick and once more moved it toward me then back. This put the car into eco mode. Eco mode is useful to extend range by reducing the amount of power used under acceleration and increasing regenerative braking. When in eco mode the car felt quite sluggish when I pressed the accelerator. I didn’t have any problems in the traffic around the Convention Center but I wouldn’t like to merge from a side street into traffic on a busy street like Santa Monica Boulevard in eco mode. I think I would drive it in standard mode most of the time unless I really needed to eek out maximum range.

When I got back to the Convention Center parking I moved the joystick toward me then forward which put the car into reverse. I backed into the parking spot which gave me a pretty good idea about the backup camera, which seems to be quite good although not as wide-angled as some I have seen. A nice little red oblong was projected onto the screen which showed you just where the car was going and this made reversing easier. There is a letter P on the top of the joy stick. I pressed down on it and the car went into park.

Another nice feature of the Leaf is the navigation system which can be set up to show you where the nearest charging stations are located. I was quite surprised to see just how many J1772 chargers were already in place around the Los Angeles area, at least six locations showed on the screen including one right there at the Convention Center that had only been installed a couple of days before the start of the Auto Show.

I set off home feeling very optimistic that the move from mechanical to electric propulsion has gotten off to a nice start. I can’t wait until next year when all those Plug-in Hybrids that we were promised for 2012 should be on display.

PHOTO GALLERY

To view Noel Adams' photos for the Auto Show, click the 35mm Slide icon below.

Times Article Viewed: 7446
Published: 09-Dec-2010

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