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Amid crisis, automakers look green in L.A.

Even as the auto industry is engulfed in a crisis, automakers are showing off their greenest rides at the Los Angeles auto show. Here’s a round-up of what’s on show. By Dan Carney.
Image: Honda Insight
Honda’s Insight Hybrid concept at the 2008 Los Angeles auto show.Fred Prouser / Reuters

The show, as they say in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, must go on. In the case of this year’s Los Angeles auto show, that means carmakers are touting their latest wares during a global economic crisis that threatens the very existence of the domestic auto industry.

Even ignoring the dour times, the Los Angeles auto show is traditionally more restrained than most, concentrating on the Birkenstock end of the product line rather than the Manolo Blahniks that take center stage at other shows.

That means a proliferation of practical, comfortable models designed to tread lightly on Mother Earth. They do this using an array of drive technologies including battery electric, fuel-cell electric, gasoline-hybrid electric, natural gas hybrid electric and a bevy of fuel-saving advancements for plain old gasoline internal combustion engine-powered machines.

Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Nissan and Renault, addressed the industry’s environmental challenge in his keynote speech at the show’s opening.

“The World Wildlife Fund has pointed out that if China catches up to U.S. standards of consumption, it will require two planets to sustain our livelihood for the long run,” he observed.

Supplemental planets are in short supply, of course, and so in the interest of conserving resources on our solitary planet, Nissan rolled out the U.S. version if its Cube subcompact at the show.

An example of truth in advertising, the blocky Cube resembles the popular Scion xB, though Nissan’s original 1998 Japanese market box-on-wheels substantially predated the Scion. The cubist Cube is Picasso-esque in its styling, which has a different profile on the right side than the left. And as the Scion has done, Nissan hopes buyers will see the Cube as a blank canvas for their self-expression.

“In some ways the Cube is like the big cardboard boxes you used to play with as a kid,” explained Al Castignetti, vice president of sales for Nissan North America. “They could be clubhouses, race cars, forts, whatever your mood and imagination wanted at the time.”

No doubt some industry executives would like to climb inside and imagine they live in a market where consumers are still buying cars.

Mazda also used the Los Angeles show to introduce a new small car, the replacement for its popular Mazda3. The outgoing car continues to beat the likes of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla in comparison tests, but the new model promises to top it in every area. Mazda touts the upcoming car’s reduced aerodynamic drag, more advanced engines and a raft of luxury features as advancements over the current model.

Many other manufacturers showed new models and concepts that feature electric drivetrains. Ghosn explained Nissan’s measured pace in introducing electric models while other manufacturers are charging forward. 

“Do we think consumers will rush to buy an electric car as soon as it is available?” he asked. “No, probably not.”

There will be early adopters, of course, but mainstream customers are unprepared to pay for the high costs of developing and manufacturing such models, Ghosn said. But in time, as production volumes build, costs will fall, making them more practical for consumers. Scale will be a key factor in determining the success of green cars in the future, he noted.

Honda is chasing some of that scale with the U.S. debut of the Insight hybrid, which the company expects to sell in annual volumes of 100,000 units for a price starting at an accessible $20,000.

To help Insight drivers travel every mile possible for each gallon of gas, Honda introduced the Ecological Drive Assist System, “Eco Assist” for short. Eco Assist is a dashboard display that coaches drivers on fuel-saving behavior and provides a score represented by green leaves.

The Insight is one of the most important cars on show in Los Angles — it’s a reworked version of Honda’s original gas-electric hybrid that will be a direct competitor to Toyota’s highly popular Prius.

Detroit’s lone representative at the show, Ford Motor Co. no doubt winced at the sight of Honda’s Insight Eco Assist because they introduced a very similar system, called EcoGuide, on its new Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrid models. Ford’s midsized hybrid sedans lead the market in their ability to drive on electric-only power, which they can use at speeds up to 47 miles per hour. 

Most hybrids switch on their gas engines at 25 mph. The Fusion and Milan also enjoyed a substantial mid-life refresh, with updated exterior styling, improved handling, and replacement of their dismal shiny plastic cabin appointments with much nicer materials.

The company also boosted the efficiency of the conventional gas-powered Fusion and Milan models through measures such as use of electric power steering and automatic fuel shutoff when coasting.

Bringing something new to the market will help bolster Ford’s credibility among green consumers, according to Joe Phillippi, president of AutoTrends Consulting.

“It was a good move because they were a bit late with a hybrid car,” he said. “The fact that you can tootle around town largely on battery power until you hit some hills, when you’ve got that capability, that’s going to be very attractive to customers.”

Making certain to keep consumers thinking about the potential of new technologies in the future, Honda also showed the FC Sport design study, a two-seat sports car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The object is to not only show that future green cars can be exciting, but also to show the packaging advances Honda has made that permit the company to squeeze a fuel cell into such a small car.

Hyundai unveiled its hybrid strategy for the United States, showing an efficient new turbocharged, direct-injected gasoline engine that it says will form the foundation of its hybrid-electric drivetrain, scheduled to debut in 2010 in the company’s Sonata midsize sedan.

The company said that the hybrid Sonata will rely on lithium polymer batteries that are smaller and more powerful than the nickel metal hydride batteries that have been used to date, while being cheaper and more durable than lithium ion batteries planned for use by other manufacturers.

Of course, Toyota is the darling of the California green crowd, so any great effort expended at the Los Angeles show would have amounted to costly preaching to the choir. Instead, the automaker demonstrated the potential of combining two technologies — its well-known hybrid-electric drive system with natural gas fuel for its internal combustion engine.

Natural gas has gained interest recently because of its lower price than gas, its domestic availability which reduces dependence on foreign oil, and its cleaner-burning characteristics. Natural gas produces virtually zero smog-forming pollution, which is important in Los Angeles basin, which originated smog controls in the 1960s. And natural gas carries much less carbon than gas, so burning it releases less carbon dioxide.

A key challenge to natural gas vehicles has been driving range — a critical factor considering the dearth of fueling stations — but adding the hybrid drive system extends that range in the case of the Camry concept vehicle to 250 miles.

Ditching the gas engine altogether, the “Mini E” also debuted at the show. While the silent minicar will whirr down the street like the radio control versions that will be under Christmas trees next month, don’t stock up on C-cell batteries for this one.

The Mini E carries a lithium ion battery pack in place of its back seat, producing spirited acceleration, a top speed of 95 mph and a driving range of 150 miles. An in-home charger will re-power the Mini E in just two and a half hours.

The performance specifications are the good news. The less good news is the lack of a back seat, making the Mini a two-seater. The worse news for most people is that the company will only build 500 of the cars, and they’ll only be available to what the company calls “a select group of private and corporate customers in California, New York and New Jersey.” That leaves out just about everyone, but the car will provide a useful test bed for parent company BMW as it refines its electric-drive know-how.

Of course, going green doesn’t mean you have to abandon oil-based products completely. Diesel cars have been the unwelcome equivalent of stained oilfield roughneck work boots in California’s Birkenstock country, detested for their heavy production of smog-forming emissions, but a continuous effort to develop exhaust treatment technology has begun to bear fruit, with BMW and Volkswagen introducing new diesels in Los Angeles that will be available in all 50 states.

Volkswagen added a V-6 clean turbodiesel to its Touareg mid-sized SUV that the company says will return 30 MPG on the highway, while BMW introduced a twin-turbo straight-six in its segment-leading 3-series luxury sedan and X5 midsize SUV.