LA opens U.S. car show season in style

Review

Jaguar C-X75

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. — Electric cars remain the hot topic in the automotive world, but the bright lights and the glitz of the Los Angeles Auto Show displayed highlights ranging from super sports cars — such as the Jaguar C-X75 and Mazda Shinari concepts — to surprising style for everyday commuters — led by the Hyundai Elantra and the Subaru Impreza. Those four create a gap, between the $14,000 Elantra and the unobtainable six-figure stratosphere of the Jaguar or Mazda concepts — if, that is, those futuristic cars ever reach production status.

In between, there were countless attractions, requiring careful scrutiny. Those who stick to the mainline displays in either the South or West halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center might miss the Lotus stand, which had a whole herd of some of the flashiest vehicles in the show in a little niche spot in the concourse.

The U.S. auto show circuit’s “Big Four” are Detroit, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Los Angeles, striving to undercut Detroit, moved from conflicting dates in January to mid-November in order to be the first, if not the most significant. This year, however, the feeling persisted that the L.A. Show would be the most significant of the four, as well.

Chrysler introduced its full fleet in San Francisco just before press days at LA, holding back only the new 300, presumably for Detroit, and was trucking the whole fleet down to Los Angeles for the show. Ford invited auto journalists to Fontana race track in Los Angeles to try all an array of cars powered by new EcoBoost engines, one day before the press days. General Motors was certain to be promoting the plug-in electric/gas Volt, while the Asian companies always focused on Los Angeles. So Los Angeles was the place to be, a hunch verified by press days, held Wednesday, November 17, and Thursday, November 18, for the show, which ran through the end of November.

Let’s do a fast once-over, chronologically:

Chevrolet led off with a new Camaro convertible, which looks more retro like the 1968 model than ever. The Volt was prominent, having been driven all the way from Detroit to Los Angeles, 2,290 miles, over five days. Still carrying the dirt and road-glop from the trip, the car was rolled out on stage, as if to prove it can go far beyond its 50-mile electric charge. Obviously, driving every day would mean 250 total electric miles, with the other 2,040 miles on the 1.6-liter gas engine. While the issue was never addressed, after I asked, until one source said the computer showed the Volt in question had averaged 37 miles per gallon for the distance. Granted, the car is designed to be an urban no-emission electric car, but if a cross-country drive is to be promoted, there are a number of normal gas vehicles that will get over 40 mpg.

Range Rover Evoque, fr cor

The Range Rover Evoque is ready for production.

Volkswagen showed off a redesigned EOS hardtop/convertible, which catches up to the redone Jetta and last year’s revised Golf.

Then came Jaguar, with partner Land Rover, both of which were bought by Tata Motors of India from Ford. It was a definite highlight, because Jag, which rolled out a new XK sports car in 2008, and a new XF midsize sedan last year, has a noteworthy XJ large luxury car this year, as a 2011. The C-X75 dazzled, where the C stands for concept, the X for experimental, and the 75 celebrates 75 years in the business. Low and spectacular to the eye, the C-X75 two small and lightweight gas-turbine engines that spin up to 80,000 RPMs to generate electricity, and power four electric motors — one for each wheel — with a total of 778 horsepower and a whopping 1,180 foot-pounds of torque. If it looks fantastic from the front, and the side, make sure to see it from the rear. Shifting to the adjacent Land Rover display, the production version of the super-sleek Range Rover Evoque was the star.

Mercedes-Benz presented the CLS 63AMG sedan, a racy version of its redesigned CLS that many believed to be the most beautiful sedan in the world. The redesign is…well-done, but the side wheelwell contours deduct from the four-door-coupe’s sleek look, in my opinion. After showing a B Class fuel cell electric car with zero emissions, Mercedes brought out world motorcycle racing champion Nicki Hayden, and announced that Mercedes was entering into a promotional partnership with Ducati motorcycles. Since BMW has long made road bikes, this was an efficient way to compete on two wheels, too.

Porsche had a new Cayman, slightly revised, with a full redesign still a year away, and its redone Cayenne SUV.

Nissan showed its new and as yet unreleased Quest minivan, and the plug-in electric Leaf as well as the Juke, both of which are Car of the Year final candidates.

Impreza, Rear corner

Subaru Impreza Concept was a styling surprise.

Fiat was tucked in next to Chrysler and Dodge, which it now owns, and the new 500 mini car held court. The European car of the year for 2008, the 500 will give Chrysler-Dodge dealers who get franchises the small car they’ve been lacking.

I wasn’t prepared for the Subaru presentation that followed. but after talking about sales gains, Subaru executives rolled out a new Impreza concept car. Maybe it won’t get built, but it seems certain that it will. As Subaru’s entry level, the Impreza was one of the best-designed, most finely chiseled cars at the entire show.

Ford, which had entertained selected media with the prowess of its new 1.6 and 2.0 four-cylinder turbocharged EcoBoost engines the day before, did so with the new Edge, and also with two German cars — the C-Max for the 1.6 and the Mondeo for the 2.0. The Mondeo used to be the basis for the popular but short-lived Contour, which was abandoned so Ford could produce Mazda’s Tribute and its own companion Escape in the same plant. When the time comes, Ford will coordinate the next generation Fusion and Mondeo, and they will fuse into one global vehicle, same as the Fiesta and the to-be-introduced 2012 Focus. For frosting, Ford unveiled the Focus SX, which will be hot, with the EcoBoost engine, at 247 horsepower and 250 foot-pounds of torque.

Honda executive vice president John Mendel said the new 2011 Odyssey is selling at a 52 percent increase over last year, and the new CR-Z has exceeded expectations as a sporty hybrid. New for the stand is the Fit Hybrid, and a Fit-EV+, and electric vehicle that will cover 100 miles on a charge of its electric nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. That will give Honda a fuel-cell car (Clarity) and hybrid for long-range, and the plug-in electric Fit for 2012, which would elevate it from concept status. Honda also will introduced an entirely redone Civic in the spring.

P1450002 Lotus Esprit, Front

The Lotus display was overloaded, including the Esprit (above). and the Elite (below) -- among others.

Lotus Elite

Dodge’s all-new Avenger, returning after a year in limbo as a contemporary midsize replacement, also has redone the interior of the Grand Caravan, along with its previously released Grand Cherokee, and the Journey is revised and the Durango revived for 2011. The Challenger has a new high-performance 392 model. But the big news from Dodge, and Chrysler, is the new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6, which replaces the 2.8, 3.0, 3.3, 3.8 and 4.0 V6 engines — and none too soon. The 3.5 is a strong, responsive, high-tech engine that can power everything in the Dodge lineup, and brings the Challenger to life as well.

You didn’t have to attend the presentation by Lotus. Just stroll past its display in the concourse connecting the West and South halls. The smaller Elan, the Elise, the Exige, the Elite, the Esprit, the Evora, and the Eterne — all seven of these cars are, in a hyphenated word, mind-blowing.

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