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Reflections on 2010 LA Auto Show

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The 2011 Auto Show Season Begins in Earnest

By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

SEE ALSO: 2010 LA AUTO SHOW - Press Pass Coverage

The mid-November LA Auto Show always begins the new season. Next comes Detroit in January, Chicago in February and New York at the end of March. All want the designation of being the premier US show. Only Detroit maintains that designation, but LA is not far behind. Neither is Chicago.

This is my first LA show. I’ve covered the other shows regularly, particularly Detroit and Chicago, and found the LA show to be a combination of those – with the oppressive crowds of Detroit and the wide-open, seemingly unlimited floor space of Chicago. New York has neither the press-days crowds nor the wide-open space. The intensity of the schedule (nearly 20 press conferences in one day, including the evening ones) is on par with Detroit, certainly, but if you pass on trying to catch all those you can just hang back and cruise an otherwise relaxed floor.

Three other differences stand out between the Detroit and LA shows.

First, as we pass from building to building or walk to surrounding venues we’re in the comfortable, gentle weather of Southern California. We can sit at the patio tables outside and bask if we like. Try that in Detroit in January or Chicago in February and you’ll likely suffer frostbite.

Second, the LA press room is way less international in flavor. Hanging out in the Detroit show’s press room you’re likely to hear the folks at the next table talking Italian, Croatian, Thai or even Azerbaijani. At least half the press folks there are from another continent. In LA there is certainly an Asian influence with a few Germans and other Europeans, but that’s about it.

Third, the hospitality (food, drink and entertainment) are but a fraction of what we find in Detroit. I hear you crying a big tear for us who have to cover the shows without being treated like royalty. Worry not, for we are hearty souls and manage well in spite of such adversity.

None of these have much to do with automobiles, I know. So what about the show? Here are a few highlights:

We expected to see a lot of green here and were not disappointed. While the practicality and necessity of green design remains questionable to some, the trend is undeniable. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of brands that did not show an electric or hybrid car. Ford presented the first electric version of the utilitarian Transit Connect small truck and Ford’s Captain of the America’s, Mark Fields, reminded us that they have an electric Focus coming soon.

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Mitsubishi announced the production-ready, made for America version of their little egg-shaped iMiEV, and GM touted again the Volt, just being delivered to the first customers now. Volvo has an electric version of the C30 sporty hatchback, and even MINI has an electric coming. Honda announced a new electric version of their little Fit, and Infiniti has a new high-performance M-Hbrid coming soon as well.

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Chevrolet Volt, by the way, remains the darling of the green car world, it seems, garnering three major honors - Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award, Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year and Green Car of the Year.

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Kudos to Mazda, by the way, who bucked the trend and did not show an electric, a hybrid or anything gratuitously green. We always appreciate a company going its own way. Instead Mazda presented the update of their popular, handy, small three-seat crossover, Mazda5. It represents the last influence of the “Nagari” design language that has defined Mazda’s cars and crossovers for the last half dozen years. The new design language called “Kodo” influences the dramatic Shinari concept coupe presented here. The buzzword among designers these days is “tension,” and this one certainly has that.

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Volkswagen introduced the nicely freshened EOS Convertible to a gaggle of loud, boisterous youngsters during an evening party and press event at their design center in Santa Monica. The room was filled with youngsters drawn to the event by a couple of celebs with whom I was not familiar. The rest of the room seemed smitten. Germans are used to making dry speeches along with press events and they tried this time but it didn’t work. The overwhelming din drowned out what was happening on stage. Then, to add insult to injury, the convertible hard top wouldn’t go down.

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We were happy to see Dodge and Chrysler coming out of their apparent hibernation with some appealing new stuff. Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 get substantial updates and upgrades without losing that semi-retro feel that brought accolades when those designs first came out. Durango and Town & Country also get major updates. And, the tawdry, mid-size Sebring sedan, now called the Chrysler 200, has blossomed into a slick new car using the same basic structural underpinnings but with exponential upgrades in powertrain, suspension and interior. While I thought the front fascia on the Chrysler 200 was more white-bread than it ought to be, the rest of the car looks great especially the much nicer and more functional interior.

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Speaking of Chrysler, now sort of a minion of Fiat, we saw again the sweet little Fiat 500 we will be able to buy here soon. Built in Mexico the little 500 seems like a big experiment to me. At a bit over 15 grand it seems like not much for the money. I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve has some time with it. Making a profit on small cars in the US market has never been easy and has seldom, if ever, worked. Sergio Marchioni, Fiat boss, was present at the press conference but did not say a word. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a car company CEO with a more relaxed demeanor. Our European correspondent, Henny Hemmes, reports that the Fiat 500 is not well regarded on that side of the pond, so it will be questionable here. I’m rooting for it because I love its Italian style and ambiance.

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We had hoped to see something of the new small Cadillac called ATS, announced recently to be produced at the Lansing, MI Grand River Plant, but nothing was forthcoming. Instead we found a mighty slick little urban concept called ULC (Urban Luxury Car) reflecting all that dramatic, edgy Cadillac design language in a small, scissor-door package. It bears no resemblance to the new little car coming from Lansing, I’m sure.

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Land Rover, now owned along with Jaguar by the Indian company Tata Motors, revealed their most fuel efficient vehicle yet, the Evoque, a small crossover powered by a 2-liter turbo (a derivative of Ford’s new EcoBoost 4-cylinder direct-injected engine) making about 240 horsepower. It’s due out next summer as a 2012 model and will sell around 45 grand. Evoque was revealed at the recent Paris show as a 3-door sporty model, but here we see it in 5-door configuration.

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Over on the Nissan stand we stumbled upon the answer to the question no one asked – a Murano convertible, believe it or not. It reminds me a bit of the PT Cruiser convertible, a rather bulky conveyance that seems incongruous without a top.

Perhaps the most significant introduction with potential for changing the market landscape is Hyundai’s all-new Elantra. Formerly an economy compact, they bring it upscale, make it bigger, fill it with surprising content, style it beautifully like sibling Sonata and still bring it in under $15,000. I’ll be participating in the official launch in a couple weeks and will report that one in depth then. Hyundai hosted a lovely party Wednesday evening with the Elantra being swarmed over by their guests with executives beaming nearby. Jeff Bridges entertained along with fire dancers and mermaids. Great party.

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My Best in Show award goes to an electric Jaguar (remember: the correct pronunciation of the name has three syllables – jag-U-ar, not jag-war or jaig-wire as our local cowboy Chevy dealer pronounces it). The reveal triggered serious oohs and aahs from the jaded press as designer Ian Callum introduced this concept car called C-X75, a range-extended electric super car. The C-X75 looks as sexy as a sci-fi stripper and as sensuous as the original XK-E, capable of 200-plus miles-per-hour and 0-to-60 time of 3.2 seconds. Two amazing little micro gas turbines power a compressed air generator to augment the electric propulsion system enabling an advertised 560-mile range. That car deserves a lengthy story of its own. Sure hope I have an opportunity to tell it sometime.

Oh, one more difference between Detroit and LA shows comes to mind. In Detroit we have seen a variety of Chinese automakers and Asian wannabes displaying their wares. Here in LA there were no Chinese entries, with the exception of Volvo. Yes, Volvo is now owned by the Geely company of China who bought the struggling brand from Ford and now has hired one of the stars of the business, former boss German at VW, Stefan Jacoby. Presenting the keynote speech to start the press events Jacoby was introduced as the German, in charge of a Swedish brand now owned by a Chinese company presenting their plans here in LA. Volvo remains a distinctly Scandinavian car line.

That’s just one example of how global the car business has become.

Watch for our coverage of the still-on-top North American International (Detroit) Auto Show in January.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved