I've never thought it a matter of critical importance to attend the Los Angeles Auto Show - until this year, that is. The 2010 edition, from which I've just returned, was the greenest show in recent memory, and I spent almost all of it running from interview to interview, so much so that I missed most of the gala press introductions.
But I've heard the thunderous music and ogled the spokes-models before. I wanted to learn what's really going on. Every car looks great all polished and revolving on a show stand with Vanna White look-a-likes strategically draped. The balance sheet realities bring them into sharp relief. So here are my shoe-leather lessons from the Los Angeles Auto Show:
The parties are better in LA.
Mitsubishi brought us to a downtown bowling alley. Volkswagen recreated downtown New York in Santa Monica with hipsters, models and a Gossip Girl. But outdoing them all was newly cheeky Hyundai, which commandeered the Figueroa Hotel with falafel from waiters wearing fezzes, fire dancers, stilt walkers, and a pair of mermaids in the 65-degree pool. Perhaps wetsuits would have spoiled the effect, though. And just when we thought it couldn't get better, T. Bone Burnett and band, fronted by Jeff Bridges (channeling The Big Lebowski in untucked shirt, swilling Fiji Water) showed up and did a long, great set.
Startups have visibility problems.
The Los Angeles Convention Center is enormous (a proposed football stadium could make it smaller), and is set up like society itself, with more- and less-desirable neighborhoods. The big automakers occupied the huge South Hall, while many of the startups (except Coda and Fisker) were in relative Siberia, along with the specialty companies and aftermarket stereo vendors. For some companies, it was like visiting the basement. That's not a big deal in itself, but it's a symptom of the challenge that startups have in the EV space. While GM was getting no less than three Car of the Year awards (from Motor Trend, Automobile and Green Car Journal), startups were forced to drum up news anyway they could.
EVs will need fast charging.
I signed up for and got a lengthy ride around downtown LA in the Mitsubishi I-MiEV.
They've sold 1,600 of them, but the U.S. version coming late next year is slightly bigger and more accommodating to super-sized Americans. The I-MiEV, with 100-mile range, has not one but two charging ports, one standard one and a second for 480-volt fast charging. Some Nissan Leafs have this, too, but not all of them. Fast charging, based on the whimsically named Japanese CHAdeMO standard, can get an I-MiEV from zero to 80 percent capacity in just 20 minutes, and it's going to be seen at some gas stations (BP first), movie theaters and big-box stores (Best Buy is out in front here). Catch a movie and "gas up" the car? Why not. I made a detour in the I-MiEV and plugged into a Real Power mobile 480 charger. Though the cable is thicker and the plug heavier, it's still no harder than using a gas pump. American EVs don't have fast charging yet, because they're waiting to see what standard the U.S. adopts. I say they should just endorse CHAdeMO and be done with.
Flashy isn't always best.
I ran into Roland Hwang, the top green car guy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, just after he lauded the Volt as the Green Car of the Year. But Roland and I agreed that some of the most important cars on the stands this year were not necessarily the ones making the biggest headlines. We both liked the new Hyundai Elantra, which is (a) very cool looking,( b) just $15,000 and (c) gets 42 mpg on the highway. This is the one that got the mermaids into the pool. Also very hip are the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima hybrids. The Kia makes 40 mpg on the highway, and here it is given a video spin on the highway:
We're saving gas, finally.
Hwang was also jazzed about the EPA's annual Fuel Economy Trends report, which showed the biggest one-year improvement in car and light truck gas consumption since 1980, an amazing 1.4 mpg (to 22.4 mpg average). "It shows that consumers really want fuel-efficient cars," Hwang said. "It also reflects not only a higher market share for cars, but also the switch from truck-based SUVs to crossovers." Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign at the Center for Auto Safety, also weighed in: "It took a recession to achieve the first substantial improvements in gas consumption in 30 years," he said. "The good news is that new standards that cut emissions six percent annually can improve the environment, energy security and automakers' health without a recession." Becker would like to see car reach 62 mpg by 2025.
Another interview was with Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. CFA, which has also been pushing 60 mpg cars, actually gave each of the 39 cars at the LA show a letter grade, which is similar to the proposed grades on the EPA/DOT window stickers. The A+ grades were all electric, including the BMW Mini E, Coda sedan, Mercedes B-Series F-Cell (hydrogen powered), Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. B+ was a big one, achieved by the Audi A3 TDI, the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, the Fiat 500 VW Golf TDI and Ford Fiesta. Gentlemen's Cs were for the BMW ActiveHybrid 7 (yes, a hybrid), the Dodge Durango, Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG (which nonetheless touted its carbon emission reduction), Nissan GT-R and Range Rover Evoque. It wasn't at the show, but the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti gets a failing F.