LOS ANGELES—I was going to write a story about the increasing irrelevance of auto shows, but then I came to Los Angeles and, son of a gun, if it wasn’t a pretty good experience. There was new model excitement, a plethora of green car introductions, and lots of new information. This one was well worth my time, which is more than I can say of Detroit last year.
Let’s do the new cars chronologically, as they were unveiled on November 28.
BMW. Building in America is prudent these days, with Trump in the White House, and BMW proclaimed its 70,000 U.S. employees and California design studio. The X model SUVs have been selling gangbusters, and Pieter Nota of BMW’s board of management introduced the big X7, with three rows and seven seats standard. There are 1,500 deposits. “People are waiting to see it,” Nota said. “It is big, it’s bold, and it has incredible on-road presence.” And, yeah, it’s built in the U.S. of A. Production begins this week in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and sales in March.
Also shown was the new 8-Series convertible, on sale that same month. “It’s at home at Sunset Boulevard and Laguna Seca,” said Chief Technology Officer Klaus Frohlich. Race bred, it’s powered by an inline six with up to 382 horsepower.
The big deal at BMW, though is the Vision iNext, a concept car headed for showrooms by 2021 as a sort of green X5. The huge kidney grille was a bit of a turn off, and will probably be changed for production, but otherwise the styling echoed the i3. By 2025, BMW will have 25 electrified vehicles on offer, and it will have built 500,000 of them by the end of 2018. The company also says it will have finalized autonomous technology by 2021. A daunting challenge.
BMW had the concept car at the show, but after the media unveil it was going on display elsewhere in town. BMW’s Tom Plucinsky told me this is because the remote location is better “for showing the building blocks that go with the car." But that’s what I had in mind when I was forming the story on auto show irrelevance. Many announcements now are off-site, and new model unveilings, too.
Volkswagen. Scott Keogh, formerly head of Audi, is now the kingpin at VW, and off the stand he made clear VW still had to earn back the public trust in the wake of the diesel scandal. “Trust needs to be earned,” he said. “The rest is just talk.”
The company used to insist diesel was the greener tech, but now it’s abandoned that and is going full speed ahead with batteries. “Our future lies with electric mobility,” Keogh said. “EVs will not kill our automotive fun.” Of course, given the public’s taste, VW will have to electrify SUVs—they’re 46 percent of the company’s sales. Keogh said he thinks the sedan market will come back, but not to what it was. “We’re going to stick with sedans, but be smart about it,” he said.
VW showed a cute electric cargo bike, and a delivery version of its battery-powered ID Buzz retro Microbus. The latter has 201 horsepower, up to 340 miles of range, and a digital system to keep track of the on-board inventory. Keogh had a point when he pointed out the environmental cost of package delivery doubling between 2005 and 2015. Delivery has big congestion and air pollution costs. I hope they build the cargo van.
Jeep. The big news—some said the big news of the show—was the new Wrangler-based Gladiator pickup truck. It seems a no-brainer, given our buying patterns, but Jeep hasn’t sold a pickup in a good long while. Jeep promised best in class towing and payload, standard four-wheel-drive, as well as a fold-down windshield. There’s a Rubicon model, shown with dirt bikes on board. Both get a 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. A three-liter eco-diesel is coming next year.
Rivian. Speaking of pickups, I stopped by the Rivian stand and saw the new electric R1T pickup. It sits on the same skateboard chassis as the company’s forthcoming SUV. It was handsome in a video game sort of way, and as imposing as a Ford F-150. A smart move is the offer of three battery packs, of 105, 135 and a whopping 180 kilowatt-hours.
The latter is the biggest battery pack offered anywhere, and gives the Rivian pickup 400 miles plus of range. Keep in mind, though, that towing will dramatically reduce that range. A Rivian spokesman told me that towing a horse trailer will reduce range to 200 miles, which is still plenty.
Porsche. The debut of a new 911 is always news, and it drew capacity crowds. The continued vitality of that model—introduced in 1963—is still amazing. Seventy percent of the 911s built are still running. Every third 911 comes to the U.S., and 250,000 have been built. Styling wise, the biggest departure is the rear treatment, which gains bulk and has some company symmetry with Audi’s new e-tron GT concept (see below).
The new 911 benefits from a 443-horsepower flat six (the classic 911 formula) but now coupled to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Is it “the best 911 ever”? Porsche says so.
Audi. Mark DelRosso, president of Audi USA, pointed out that the company was a niche player as recently as 2008, with sales a third of what they are today. He attributed the company’s rise to the introduction of the R8 and its association with the Iron Man movie, but there has to be more to it than that!
The e-tron GT Concept was sneak previewed off site—more ammunition for my thesis—but it was also on the stand in LA. According to Marc Lichte, head of design for Audi AG, the four-door electric e-tron introduces a new design language for the company. It is certainly a handsome beast (with a new “single frame” grille), and does the job (like the Tesla Model S) of making a four-door sedan look like a coupe.
The e-tron GT Concept, with batteries in the floor, offers 250 miles of range, 590 horsepower, and a zero to 60 time of 3.5 seconds. It’s definitely headed for production (around 2021), along with the new e-tron SUV.
Toyota. Toyota Group Vice President and General Manager Jack Hollis presided over the debut of five new vehicles, but only teased the introduction of the sporty Supra, which will be unveiled December 14 in Detroit. There’s a new 2020 Corolla hybrid sedan, an all-wheel drive facelifted Prius, the 2019 RAV4 and TRD versions of the Camry and Avalon.
The 121-horsepower Corolla delivers an expected 50 (or more) combined mpg and should be a solid seller. Sixty percent of Toyota’s sales are crossovers, but like VW it’s still committed to sedans. Can 46 million Corolla sales be wrong? The Corolla hybrid comes loaded with safety and infotainment features, and will be on sale next spring.
Also on sale then will be the 2019 Prius, with a mild styling update (new fascia and headlamps) and available all-wheel drive. In-city fuel economy will be 52 mpg. “The importance of hybrids continues to grow,” Hollis said. He added that consumers want all-wheel drive in as many cars as possible, and that’s why it’s going on the Prius.
Mercedes. The big news on the stand was the introduction of the new A-Class, long a fixture in Europe (and Canada).
Mercedes is continuing to branch out from luxury to offer cars to all segments of the market. Dietmar Exler, president and CEO of Mercedes USA, called the A-Class a “gateway” car that would bring new customers to the brand—and keep them there.
“We want to lead in every segment,” Exler said. The CLA has helped with that, attracting customers 10 years younger than Benz’ average. The A-Class will be on sale early next year, with a price that may be around $32,000.
Also new is the Sprinter van, with six-cylinder gas and diesel engines. The GLE gains an optional third row of seats and seven-passenger capacity, as well as a 48-volt “e-active body control” system that can be adjusted via the instrument cluster. That enabled a “dancing Mercedes” demonstration that had to be seen to be believed. The thing had moves.
The GLE will be offered with a choice of 362- and 255-horsepower engines, and will go on sale in the spring with a starting price of $53,700.
Volvo. Even more fuel for my fire! Volvo had no cars on its stand in Los Angeles. Not one. The idea, said PR spokesman Dean Shaw, was to “start a conversation around connected cars.” Showcased was new autonomous Lidar technology, the company’s subscription service, and a new delivery program that will deposit packages in the trunk of your car.
All in all, not a bad show. So no piece saying these extravaganzas are worthless (at least, not this time.) But we’ll see what happens in Detroit.