Los Angeles car culture
Gabriel Bouys  /  AFP - Getty Images file
The Los Angeles Auto Show, the first major show of the North American season, opens this week in the capital of car culture. It boasts cars from 47 manufacturers, with 21 world debuts.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 11/29/2006 9:39:09 PM ET 2006-11-30T02:39:09

The world’s leading automakers descend on Southern California this week as the Los Angeles Auto Show kicks off the North American automotive show season.

With a theme of a “new beginning,” the 10-day exhibition is second in importance only to the Detroit Auto Show, traditionally held in early January. Los Angeles has moved its position in the calendar to early December from January in a bid to make a splash at the start of the auto show season. This year’s event boasts cars from 47 manufacturers, with 21 world debuts, including seven concept cars.

The Los Angeles show will focus on some of the most important issues facing the auto industry including the growing need for alternative-fuel cars, which after a summer of surging gasoline prices should be high in the minds of car buyers and manufacturers.

The state of California, the capital of car culture where tough clean-air laws prevail, is one of the largest markets for environmentally friendly cars that run on “hybrid” gasoline-electric engines, the most famous of which is the Toyota Prius.

Several automakers plan to show off their latest alternative-fuel vehicles at the show including General Motors, which promises vehicles that run on hydrogen-powered fuel cells — the Chevrolet Sequel and Equinox Fuel Cell, both of which are concept cars — and versions of the Saturn Aura and the GMC Yukon that run on hybrid gas-electric engines. Rival Ford plans to show a version of its Escape small SUV powered by a gas-electric hybrid engine.

GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner is expected to offer details of the company’s new energy and environment initiative, setting the stage for the unveiling of a battery-powered car at the Detroit Auto Show in January. Reports say the vehicle will have an extended driving range of some 30 miles on battery power and include a diesel or gasoline engine for use when the vehicle’s battery power is low.

Honda will show its FCX fuel-cell concept car, while Germany’s BMW also plans to show it is at the forefront of hydrogen technology, unveiling its Hydrogen 7 vehicle at the show. The Hydrogen 7 has an internal combustion engine that can operate on either hydrogen or gasoline. The innovative sedan, which is based on the existing BMW 7 Series, will be made in limited numbers and sold in 2007.

Automotive designers will also show off their eco-friendly vision of the future in the third annual Design Challenge, a competition where nine participating automotive studios imagine a time where car consumers can enjoy the distinctive Southern California car-driven lifestyle without harming its unique environment.

Automobile design is big business in Los Angeles, which boasts the world’s greatest concentration of car design studios. The competition — which includes entries from Acura, GM, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota — includes such design visions as a vehicle with interchangeable, fully recyclable body coverings and one with algae-filled panels that transform harmful carbon dioxide into pure oxygen.

Also big business in the home of Hollywood: luxury vehicles, and there will be plenty on offer at the Los Angeles show, from the new Audi R8 premium performance coupe to the V8 Vantage roadster from Aston Martin. Also on display: the powerful Ferrari 599, lightweight Lotus Exige S and the Lamborghini’s new Murcielago LP640 roadster.

When it comes to sport utility vehicles, pickups and crossovers, BMW will unveil its redesigned X5, while Buick enters the luxury crossover category with the all-new Enclave and Land Rover will roll out its rugged LR2 SUV.

Detroit visits Los Angeles in turmoil, as the big U.S. automakers struggle with slipping North American sales and stiff competition from their Asian rivals. GM and Ford, the two largest U.S. car firms, are in the midst of complicated turnaround programs, with plans to lay off some 75,000 workers and shutter several factories.

Recent reports suggest more pain could be ahead for automakers in 2007. The culprit: a declining housing market, particularly in large, overheated housing markets like California.

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal says forecasters predict auto sales could fall to their lowest level in nearly a decade next year, as a decline in home values and rising interest rates mean people with adjustable-rate mortgages on pricey homes face higher monthly mortgage payments, leaving them with less disposable income to spend on new cars.

Car sales in California are likely to slow down through the rest of 2006 and 2007 but should return to near normal growth in 2008 and 2009, according to a recent report from the California Motor Car Dealers Association.

The L.A. Auto Show will open to the public from Dec. 1 to Dec. 10.

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