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LA Auto Show: Trends, Themes and Photos

November 22, 2010

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Welcome to the first media day of the LA Auto Show. With all the mood lighting, models and techno music you could've mistaken the LA Convention Center with the hottest new dance club, but that's to be expected. But the world's first crossover convertible for $46,000-who knew?

Here are some trends, themes and observations with photos.

We're Electric II

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When it comes to electric, no manufacturer wants to be perceived as lagging behind the market. Most automakers at the show had some sort of electric vehicle on hand, whether the car is hitting roads now (Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf) being produced next year (Mitsubishi "i"), in testing (Saab 9-3 wagon ePower, Toyota Rav 4 EV, Honda Fit electric), a production-leaning concept (Nissan Ellure) or an engineering marvel with no production plans (Jaguar's CX75 extended range plug-in electric supercar).

At the Chevy press conference, GM's marketing head Joel Ewanick exited a dirty Chevy Volt to show that the car is indeed in production and about to hit American pavement. In fact, Ewanick drove it from Detroit to Los Angeles, some 2,300 miles. Ewanick said he drove 1,100 miles on one gallon of gas.

Joel Ewanick drove to the show from Detroit in a Chevy Volt.

Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz introduced the Toyota Rav 4 EV, the second generation of the automaker's legendary EV, of which 750 are still on the road.

The new version will be "powered by Tesla," meaning Tesla will build and supply the battery. Elon Musk of Tesla was on hand for the photo op. Some 35 "Phase Zero" test vehicles will be on the road by the end of this year. There is no price point or even a final assembly point yet.

Elon Musk of Tesla (right) poses with Jim Lentz of Toyota.

Doing More with Less

Automakers are making a wholesale shift from six cylinders to four in sedans and from eight to six in SUVs and crossovers. But due to the latest engineering that squeezes every last drop out of an internal combustion engine, performance isn't compromised and fuel economy is improved.

The new Dodge Durango's standard engine is Chrysler's ubiquitous Pentastar V-6, which offers significant fuel economy improvements over the previous generation's V-8. The V-6 can tow 6,200 lbs while the V-8 towed only 5,800 lbs.

Buick's base engine for its flagship LaCrosse is now a 2.4L four banger, down from six cylinders. But Buick is boosting performance and economy with a "light electrification of a standard powertrain," called e-Assist.

Buick's e-Assist fuel-economy boosting technology is standard on all 2012 LaCrosse models.

Not a full hybrid system, e-Assist includes automatic engine shut off when the car is stopped, regenerative braking and a small battery that aids in acceleration. Buick's e-Assist technology will be standard for the LaCrosse and is expected to deliver a hybrid-like 37 mpg on the highway with 180 hp. Prices start at about $30,000.

Mercedes trumpeted the message that its performance division, AMG, is focusing on improving CO2 emissions and fuel economy. The luxury carmaker revealed the 2012 CLS 63 AMG, which with 518 horses still manages to get 24 mpg in mixed driving, according to Mercedes.

Small Car Customization and Personalization

"Choice" is the name of the day, especially for the compact segment. The B- and C-segments are high-volume, high-growth right now, and manufacturers are realizing the potential with hundreds of variations of their small car models.

The Fiat 500 comes in 14 exterior colors and 14 choices of interior color combinations.

The Fiat 500 is offered in Pop, Sport and Lounge models.

For the 2012 Ford Focus, Ford will have different packages for its four-door sedan or five-door hatchback to match a wide array of drivers and styles. The Focus will soon come in a performance (ST) model with 247 hp and an all-electric version. Ford is using this segment to show off a host of new technologies, such as a text-to-voice function on its Sync system and Active Park Assist, a parallel parking aid without using a steering wheel. 

The 2012 Ford Focus gets upmarket tech goodies not usually afforded "economy" cars.

The Ford Focus ST will smoke wheels with 247 hp.

Road-ready Design Oddities

How many new segments can the industry come up with?

Nissan introduced its Murano Cross Cabriolet, the world's first ever "crossover convertible." Starting at a hefty $46,390, Nissan is aiming for "active, optimistic married couples in their 40's." I never did get why manufacturers have to tell us who their mark is. Why not just let the market settle itself? For a crossover, the car had very little trunk or backseat space.

Is the market ready for a crossover convertible for $46,390?

Nissan's Murano Cross Cabriolet

The Range Rover Evoque "compact luxury crossover" was introduced as a coupe at the Paris Auto Show. The five-door body style was revealed in LA. Starting at $45,000 and on sale in America now, the 4-cylinder has Range Rover's signature front grille, though the car looks like it was chopped off and sanded down in the back.

The diminutive Range Rover Evoque is looking for a younger market.

Getting the Concept

There are some concept cars that have a shot at production (Nissan Ellure hybrid, a sporty sedan aimed at "women in their 30's and 40's") and some that just spark the imagination (the pod-like Kia Pop concept city car).

The Nissan Ellure hybrid concept.

Still others conjure the James Bond in all of us. The Jaguar CX75 supercar concept is powered by four electric motors, one at each wheel, and two gas turbines. It does zero to 60 in three seconds with a top speed of 200 mph.

Jaguar's CX75 concept: James Bond, or the Jetsons?

"Chink-whe-chento"

Get used to the Italian pronunciation of 500. This Fiat micro car is going to do big business in the U.S. Going on sale in January 2011, it's cute, has an up market fit and finish, is designed to personalize and starts at $15,500.

The Italian model got in the way of this Italian micro car ready for America.

Optimal Optima

With the backdrop of Hyundai's emergence into respectability comes Kia and its sexy, well-priced Optima sedan. Media chatter was very positive walking around the display models.

And this was the global premiere of the Optima hybrid, Kia's first, which achieves the necessary 40 mpg benchmark on the highway. The 206 hp, six-speed automatic is loaded. It goes on sale early next year though pricing has not been released.

The sharp lines of the 2012 Kia Optima.

Models Showing Models

Jonathan Browning, the new president and CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, probably got the most photographs of any executive, as he was standing next to supermodel Heidi Klum. Browning said very little, letting Klum show off the new VW Eos convertible.

Over here, Ms. Klum!

2012 is Now

Model year 2012 is only a month and a half away. I overheard one auto exec say, "We wanted to release it as a 2012 model but we couldn't do it any sooner than January of 2011." Well, duh.

Look for a slew of models to be released this January. It does make sense to get a head start on the model year, which traditionally had begun in September. Those extra eight months will protect the residual values better.

Lastly, the day is essentially packed with press conference after press conference, jockeying for position with aggressive photographers. Under the hot lights, things can get testy. I saw two amped up photographers almost get into a fist fight, with schoolyard calls of "let's take this outside, buddy!" Relax, gents. It's only an auto show.

It's a long day with this crowd.

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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris Brown is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. Through these publications, online newsletters, trade events and associations, Chris covers all aspects of the fleet world, including fleet management, manufacturer fleet activities, the fleet leasing industry, vehicle remarketing, rental industry news, car rental taxation and legislation.

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