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Hot, Fast, and Green: The 2008 L.A. Auto Show:

The current downturn in the global economy and a growing environmental consciousness continue to inspire innovation in the automobile industry.  The 2008 Auto Show at the L.A. Convention Center reflects major automakers’ ongoing response to consumer demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles that also satisfy buyers’ aesthetic needs and are fun to drive.  Having covered this event for the third consecutive year, the Mirror found once again that the number of fuel-efficient and/or alternative energy vehicles (electric, hybrid, etc.) has grown exponentially. 

Sadly, however, the Big Three American car makers seem to be playing catch-up with their Asian and European counterparts, who are cranking out cars that are not only fuel-efficient, but also higher in horsepower and torque, with cutting-edge, often futuristic, interior and exterior design elements.  And although several American car makers, notably Chevrolet, have alternative vehicles in various stages of development and/or production, they are, to be kind, coming rather late to the party. The future has indeed arrived in the car biz, and our car guys, whose sad hat-in-hand spectacle in Washington last week did little to inspire consumer confidence, had better get with the proverbial program, or companies like VW, Toyota, Mercedes Benz, and Honda will continue to run the Big Three off the table in terms of sales and market share. (A word of advice, fellas: next time you go to D.C. to beg for money, you might want to leave the private jets at home.)

In recent years, a centerpiece of the car show has been the Green Car Journal’s Green Car of the Year Award, which last year went to the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid SUV, a behemoth that gets an impressive 20mpg, better than many smaller sedans and sports cars, and far better than the other SUVs in its class.

The Journal’s top 5 for 2009, as chosen by the magazine’s editors, are: the BMW 335d, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Saturn Vue 2-Mode Hybrid, smart fortwo, and Volkswagen Jetta TDI. The 2009 winner was the Volkswagen Jetta.  Said Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal and editor of GreenCar.com, “It [the Jetta] raises the bar significantly in environmental performance with its EPA-estimated 41 mpg highway fuel economy, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and extremely low tailpipe emissions. This is all the more impressive when you consider the Jetta TDI is a clean diesel, achieving the kind of fuel efficiency offered by gasoline-electric hybrids but in a more affordable way.”

The five green finalists represent important milestones for their manufacturers. The VW and BMW are clean diesels that signal the advent of highly efficient, advanced diesel sedans.  Ford’s Fusion Hybrid, a full hybrid, is the automaker’s first hybrid sedan (again, guys, get with it!). Saturn’s Vue 2-Mode is GM’s first application of its two-mode hybrid system in a V-6 front-drive platform. The two-mode allows the driver to switch to all-electric power at speeds under 25mph, allowing additional fuel savings.  The smart fortwo is a new-for-the-U.S., fuel-efficient micro car with a small eco footprint, but it’s a tiny (really, really tiny!) vehicle, and this reporter had a hard time seeing its utility beyond short suburban jaunts to the 7-11; taking it on the freeway seems about as safe as hang-gliding in a monsoon.

Cogan sees these innovative cars as part of the trend towards eco-friendly cars that seems to be, at long last, unstoppable.  “This is an exciting year for ‘green’ cars because of the many innovative and advanced models now emerging,” he said.  “For the first time, we’ve also seen a pair of clean diesels and a small gasoline model giving hybrids serious competition.”

Despite the pride many manufacturers feel in their new line of vehicles, the mood was somewhat dour with regard to projected sales.  GM lost 60,000 sales last month due to tightened credit requirements.  One potential buyer remarked that even though he was prepared to put 50 percent down on a used vehicle from a major manufacturer, because his FICO score was under 700 he was unable to get even the most unfavorable credit terms for his purchase.   Car makers are clearly fearful of making the kinds of bad loans that have so imperiled the housing industry; still, it would seem that it’s in the industry’s own best interests to find creative yet financially responsible solutions to the “credit crunch” to allow buyers to make purchases.

There are a few notable bright spots for American car enthusiasts.  The new Ford Mustang is a crackerjack mid-priced sports car, with sharp new lines and a newly re-designed powertrain.  The long-awaited revamped Chevy Camaro goes on sale in ’09, and it’s retro-modern styling and hi-tech engine will be a strong competitor in the $30,000-range “fun car” market, especially if you are wont to whip out those 70’s bell bottom jeans and chisel your sideburns to wide, Superfly-like, perfection.  And the aforementioned Ford Fusion is certainly a strong choice for the economy-minded, as it gets up to 47mpg in pure electric mode and is expected to net around 700 miles per tank of gas.

As always, there is plenty to gawk at and dream about at the Auto Show.  The new Ferraris, including their first retractable hardtop, the appropriately named California, are gorgeous inside and out.  The new Nissan 370ZX has increased power over its predecessor, the 350ZX, and the longer lines of the new model are more classically sports-car cool. 

Over 40 models made either their world or North American debut at the L.A. Auto Show.  These cars prove that technology in the automotive industry is changing rapidly and for the better; let’s hope the American car makers can compete in the global market by exhibiting the innovation, elegance, and exuberance that were once the hallmark of their vehicles.  We’ve seen some baby steps – it’s now time for a giant leap or two.

The L.A. Auto Show runs through Sunday November 30 at the L.A. Convention Center, including Thanksgiving Day.  For tickets and information call 213.741.1151 or visit LAautoshow.com.  Parking available on-site. 

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