A Photographic Look At The 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show
© 2009 by Carey Russ
After a few years of the usual modus operandi at the LA Auto Show press preview days -- running with the herd to all the various new car and concept vehicle presentations, and dealing with trampling crowds worthy of a soccer riot to get press kits afterwards -- I decided to take a more relaxed approach this year. Only make the most significant intros, take photos later, and let the naive young twits tweet whatever blatherings they saw fit in allegedly real time while I digested information for later use.
And also to forego the pointless complexity and computer-in-charge operation of a DSLR for the simplicity and ease of use of a real camera. Meaning a Leica M2, with a semi-wide 35mm f1.4 lens for easy focusing in low light, an undistorted but wide-enough view of anything interesting, and a wide enough aperture for control of depth of field. Incident light readings under the floodlights showed plenty of available photons at EI 400, no need to push the Fomapan or Tri-X. With 1.4 @ 1/1000 to 2.8 @ 1/250 being the usual exposure, and some allowances for less light, hand-held shooting was not going to be a problem.
I stayed with a colleague who lives in Long Beach. Being freelancers (read: poor) we took the Blue Line light rail from there to the LA Convention Center - for $1.25 each way. Quicker and saner than driving in traffic and no parking hassle or (considerable) expense. Hey, "green" is in -- and what better irony than taking public transit (along the old Pacific Electric right-of-way even) to the Auto Show? Works for me.
Walking in from the trolley station across the street, we spied an unfamiliar car stopping at the front entrance. People got out to a great fanfare of press and paparazzi. Celebrity? The car looked like an Acura TL, kind of, from a distance. But Acura hasn't made any huge change to the TL... oh! It's the Chevy Volt! Interesting. Good-looking car, and the first intro so might as well get in and check it out.
We were early enough to get seats. And to get a good look at the car. Yes, the silhouette, headlights, and high tail do look more than a little like the TL. But it has a character of its own. And is a runner, with an unusual twist on the gasoline-electric hybrid system. The Volt is primarily electric, running on battery power, with a small internal-combustion engine that will come on to act as an on-board generator when necessary. Interesting concept, tried back in the 1930s with far more primitive technology by General Electric in experimental switching locomotives...
Gotta love the taillights on the Volt. Is that a (Chevy) bowtie?
Then it was time for the presentation. "From Gas-Friendly to Gas-Free" said the powerpoint slide displayed. And the crowd got thicker. Time to look elsewhere...
How about at another part of the Chevrolet display? One with cars that are very gas-friendly. If the 400 horsepower of a regular Camaro SS is just not enough, Reeves Callaway has something you might like - a run of 25 Hendrick Motorsports 25th Anniversary Camaros, one for every year Hendrick has been at the top in NASCAR competition. Well, make that 24 cars, as Rick Hendrick (center) got the keys to #1 from Callaway (left). The clear plastic hood bulge displays a chrome-lated supercharger. 582 bhp @ 6400 rpm, 546 lb-ft of torque at 4000, 0-60 in 3.9 seconds, and yours for a $76,181 msrp. And more exclusivity than any of the Italian exotics... who, by the way, were glaringly absent from this year's show.
Interesting, as LA is the top market for Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini in the US, and one of the top markets in the world. The past few years all had a large presence. Nada, this time around.
Also absent was Nissan/Infiniti, although there was an unveiling of the new Infiniti M the night before. Not long ago an Infiniti was little more than a Nissan with fancier styling and a different dealer network. And the original M was something that left me wondering, as it looked all too much like a late-70s Ford LTD. The G35 changed all of that, and how! And then the M became a bigger G, and a serious competitor not only to Lexus or Acura but to BMW, Mercedes, or Audi as well. The new M is even more differentiated from the G and looks like a further improvement.
Next stop, Mazda. Other manufacturers talk about passion and enthusiasm for cars; Mazda lives it. And its cars and crossovers show that. The MX-5/Miata defines the contemporary two-seat sports car, but all Mazdas, even the Mazda5 mini-minivan and CX crossovers, are driver's cars. Last year saw the debut of the latest Mazda3 compact, which grew more than a bit in size. Too big for your tastes? No worries, take a look at the Mazda2. It looks to help re-ignite the budget hot hatch class. Fun for a low cash outlay and with little thirst for fuel? Sign me up! (snowboards on top if you were wondering. so much for aerodynamics...)
Onward, toward the four interlocking rings of Audi. Some established luxury manufacturers are losing market share. Which means that potential customers are going elsewhere. In many cases, to Audi. And for good reason. Clean styling may get a first look, but innovative engines and quattro all-wheel drive grip and traction differentiate Audi even further. The performance flagship R8 now comes in roadster form, and the upcoming A3 TDI (that's turbodiesel) won the "Green Car of the Year" award. And Audi was one of the few to exhibit a high-end concept car, the e-tron.
Looking like a cross between an R8 and TT Coupe, and better than either -- and we hope, presaging future styling trends from Ingolstadt -- the e-tron is an electric vehicle with an attitude. And four-wheel drive via traction motors at each wheel. e-quattro?
Audi also has a history. Which was celebrated with a scale model (or is it a pedal car?) of a C-Type Auto Union from the 1930s. Hmmm, with an NSU engine this could have been quite a Formula III car in the early 1950s...
Not far away, BMW had its own heritage exhibit to back up its product line. In this case, scale models of the "Art Cars" of the 1970s - factory race cars painted by noted artists:
Alexander Calder 3.0CSL
Andy Warhol M1. Better than a Campbell's Soup can any day!
Retro met modern at Porsche, with the debut of the Boxster Spyder. It's an incremental change to the mid-engined Boxster, but there was no doubt as to inspiration as a restored Type 718 sports-racer from the 1960s was on display in the lobby area:
The twin bulges on the rear deck of the 718 are for the carburetors, but earlier examples had single or twin headrests...for a look that has been captured in the Boxster Spyder. Compared to the regular Boxster, the Spyder improves performance by being lighter and simpler, in the classic manner.
Proving that whimsy is not dead, Honda had the P-Nut. That's "Personal Neo-Urban Transport" and the idea behind it is maximum comfortable interior space with a minimum footprint. Which is a Good Thing indeed for crowded cities. The driver sits front and center, with space for two passengers behind and to the sides -- like the somewhat larger and less urban McLaren F1 supercar. There's space for an internal combustion engine, hybrid drivetrain, or electric motor in the rear. Is this the next step after The Box It Came In of the Scion xB/Nissan Cube/Kia Soul? It's probably not likely to reach production, but the P-Nut does show that concept cars need not be fantasy supercars to be interesting.
Next stop, Ford. Where it was Fiesta time, with the unveiling of the American-spec version of the Fiesta and announcement of a new V6 engine for the Mustang for the 2011 model year. While the V8 versions of the Mustang get all the attention, it's the V6 that sells the most. The current 4.0-liter, 210-hp sohc V6 gets replaced by an all-new high-tech 3.7-liter twin-cam engine with 305 hp, a 7000-rpm redline, six-speed transmissions, and maybe even 30mpg on the highway. That's more power than the original 4.6-liter sohc V8, or any regular-production 5.0. Ford's serious about smaller, more-efficient engines. But somehow I suspect the Mustang will always be available with a V8.
Back to the Fiesta - if it's anything like the Euro-spec example I drove recently, and I suspect that there are very few changes, Ford has a winner. Nice styling details, too. Why should small and inexpensive mean ugly?
Safety sells (somewhere George Romney is smiling...) and Ford also showed its new rear-seat shoulder-strap airbag system in mockup form. It'll debut in next year's Explorer, and then make its way throughout the lineup.
My vote for best-looking car at the show? The Volvo S60 Concept. With the S80 back in 1998, Volvo tossed the box and kept the toy. And that established a look that has been successful ever since, although not much development on the car side was done during the Ford years. The production S60 is supposed to debut at Geneva next Spring, by which time Volvo may be under new ownership. Or not... the industry being what it is these days. Let's hope it's not changed significantly from this:
Rolls-Royce was absent last year, but had a presence this time around. The Greater LA area, out to Palm Springs, is a good place for Rolls... and there was the tempting photo-op with the Winged Victory mascot in front of the V12 engine. Excessive? Why would a Rolls-Royce be anything but?
Lexus had a couple of interesting vehicles. The LF-A supercar made its debut to the general public (it was shown earlier at SEMA, but that's a trade show). Looks a bit like the first-generation Lexus SC Coupe meets the last Supra, powered by a 552-hp 4.8-liter V10, and will be largely hand-assembled in very small numbers.
Less ready for production but potentially more interesting was the Lf-Ch. Designed at Toyota/Lexus's Southern California CALTY studio, it's a study of possibilities for a compact luxury hybrid, in five-door hatchback form. If that doesn't sound like something for the US, the Lf-Ch debuted at the Frankfurt auto show earlier in the year. And hatchbacks are increasing on this side of the Atlantic, as a new generation discovers their practicality. If there's anyone left who thinks that "hatchback" automatically equals "s*&%†box", go back to your cave. And this one looks particularly interesting.
We're getting plenty of exercise. I think it was about 7 or 8 miles of aisles each day. But hey, exercise is healthy! On the Mercedes-Benz stand was tuner-division AMG's first standalone vehicle, a lovely tribute to the iconic 300SL gullwing coupe of the 1950s. That's fitting, as the original SL was a thinly-disguised race car. (the doors had to open up as the layout of the complex tubular space frame demanded wide door sills for rigidity that precluded normal door operation). And AMG started life long ago as a race-preparation shop.
MINIs are still the most fun you can have on four wheels, but with the regular two-door, the convertible, and the extended Clubman you'd think they've used all possible configurations. You'd be wrong, as shown by two "concepts", a roadster and a coupe. Both dispense with the rear seat. A Mini roadster is, as far as I know, a new idea, although I wouldn't be surprised if someone in England build one off the original Mini back in the Sixties. A Mini-based coupe has been done, back then and there, by Ogle and Marcos, among others. The new Mini Coupe is more Mini-looking than those examples of British fiberglass creativity, but it still won't be confused with anything else. Note the roadster in the background.
Volkswagen mixed a lovely styling exercise with its diesel-electric hybrid technology in the Up! Lite. If this is the future direction of VW styling, bring it on! Designed for ultra-efficient commute use, it has an 800cc twin-cylinder, 51hp turbodiesel and 10kW (13.4hp) electric motor working with an lithium-ion battery pack and driving the wheels through a 7-speed DSG gearbox. 70mpg highway is alleged. I say just drop in the current TDI and bring it over! Rarely was it without a crowd.
And now we come almost full circle, back to GM. In this case, Cadillac. The concept vehicle attraction was the Converj extended-range hybrid concept. Rumored as a possible production vehicle based on the same technology as the Chevy Volt, the Converj is a stunning, knife-edged design that highlights Cadillac's distinctive style. It's especially gorgeous at the rear sides.
But you don't have to wait years for that look - LA also saw the debut of the 2011 CTS Coupe. Which is also to be available in a -V version, meaning 550 or so worth of V8 horsepower. Take *that* right between the eyes, gnomes of Munich!
We end two days of manic activity at the Aston Martin booth. Now back in British hands (with other backing as well, it is an international world), Astons are quintessentially British. Understated. They have presence, but not the extrovert machismo bravado of the Italians. The styling builds on the company's considerable heritage, with a strong nod to the 1950s and `60s, but is in no way retro. It's ageless. Just one little detail, the ducktail spoiler at the rear:
Simple at a glance, a closer look reveals much more complexity. God is in the details, as is said. There is depth here, and a fine motorcar.