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It’s Not Easy Being Green: The 2008 LA Auto Show:

Over the last year, consumer demand for hybrid and other eco-friendly vehicles jumped a staggering 87 percent. Whether this is a result of a growing national environmental conscience or the fact that Americans would rather spend less of their hard-earned money at the gas pump, car manufacturers great and small have heeded the call for cleaner burning, fuel efficient vehicles. In a speech given outside the Convention Center, Governor Schwarzenegger, whose environmental record is rather admirable, said, “It is fantastic to see that the world’s automakers are developing the technology to help us meet our goals in California. These cars come in every size and shape and they prove that we can give consumers the choices they want and still protect the environment.”

Schwarzenegger is right: on display at this year’s show are alternative vehicles in nearly every car class: SUV’s, sedans, compacts, luxury, even the occasional sports car. And in addition to gas/electric hybrids, cars powered by diesel, biodeisel, ethanol, natural gas, and fuel cells were also on display, although many of these vehicles, including several completely electric models, are still in the concept stage. Carmakers have also focused on aesthetics. For those looking to purchase a vehicle in the next year or two, here’s a sampling of what’s available:

At $25,000 MSRP, the new, remodeled, small Ford Escape SUV is a great buy. The new exterior lines give the car a more agile and street-worthy look. The roomy cabin is somewhat Spartan, but can easily accommodate four adults with enough cargo space for a trip to Costco. The Escape has excellent safety ratings and gets 34 city/30 highway mpg. Also check out the Escape’s cousin, the Mercury Mariner hybrid – it’s more or less at a statistical dead heat with the Escape, but looks cooler and has a more plush interior.

At $42,500 base MSRP, the Lexus RX400 hybrid is the leader of the mid-size pack. As one might expect from Lexus, the RX400 is gorgeous inside and out, and is full of technological innovations now being imitated by other manufacturers. Mileage estimates are 26 city/24 highway, but a word of caution: the options packages can add another $7,000 to $8,000, so you might want to ask yourself if you really need that GPS system.

Chevrolet’s Tahoe Hybrid, the first full-size hybrid SUV, was named Green Car of the Year by Green Car Journal. At first glance, the Tahoe Hybrid looks like any other gas-guzzling SUV, but Chevy has stenciled and badged HYBRID all over the vehicle, loudly proclaiming its political correctness. Although still a behemoth, the Tahoe rates 21 city mpg, on a par with many non-hybrid mid-size cars, so if you have to own a monster, this one is guilt-free.

In the luxury car category, Mercedes-Benz offers a diesel engine E320 that won the 2007 World Green Car Award. Diesel cars, which have gotten a bad rap for years, are making a comeback, and the E320 gets 675 miles per tank of fuel. Let’s hope that the car does not suffer from the many manufacturing defects that have plagued Mercedes Benz over the past few years and caused Consumer Reports to give them some of the lowest reliability ratings in the industry.

At the higher end, Porsche is developing a hybrid version of their popular Cayenne SUV, set to go to market in 2009-10. Porsche promises a 30 percent decrease in fuel consumption over the regular Cayenne, with the performance enhancements demanded by Porsche buyers. As Cayennes presently run as high as $100,000, this is obviously not for the budget-minded.

Although this year is all about green, the show also included many non-green, hi-end cars.

The Audi R8 is a head-turning, hi-tech marvel that at $109,000 has already given competitors such as the Aston Martin Vantage and the Porsche 911 Carerra 4S cause to worry. The R8’s aluminum-intensive, hand-made body has a muscular, flat stance that seems to ache for speed. At 420 hp and the same optional R-tronic transmission found in a Lamborghini, the R8’s performance more than matches its looks.

Nissan’s GT-R promises to be 2008’s breakout sport car. The GT-R rockets from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds, basically demolishing pretty much every production sports car on the road, including those priced two to four times higher. A true supercar for under 80K, Nissan has created a car that performs like a Ferrari for the same price as the very road-worthy Corvette.

And finally (sigh), there’s the Aston Martin DBS, the car James Bond drove in the recent Casino Royale. It’s possibly the most beautiful, elegant, cool sports car on the planet, and although car experts differ on whether the car’s performance justifies the price, it is nothing short of a work of art. At $245,000 the DBS does not come with rear machine guns, laser-guided missiles, or ejector seats.

As always, the Auto Show is a fun way to spend the day, and hopefully this year marks a true turning point in the car industry, which until very recently has willfully avoided developing eco-friendly vehicles (rent Who Killed The Electric Car?). But the people have spoken and apparently the car guys have finally listened.

The LA Auto Show runs through November 25 at the LA Convention Center. For more information, go to laautoshow.com.

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