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Auto industry shows a pulse at L.A. Auto Show

/ Source: contributor

The surprisingly vibrant Los Angeles Auto Show may be reflecting signs of life in the auto industry itself as the world's largest car market begins to emerge from a deep recession.

“A year ago everyone said that L.A. would be dead in 2009,” remarked Lindsey Chappell, an editor with the trade journal Automotive News.

In particularly stark contrast to the Tokyo Motor Show last month, this week’s Los Angeles show possessed an unexpected but much-welcomed vitality, with introductions from car makers from a variety of nations showing products across the automotive spectrum.

Los Angeles enjoyed introductions of a Porsche sports car, a Toyota minivan and compacts from Ford and Chevy. Tokyo's show, in comparison, featured only introductions by Japanese car makers mostly of cars that targeted that nation’s domestic market, rendering that show virtually irrelevant to most of the world.

“After a scary time for manufacturers, they are starting to run on all cylinders again,” said Jake Fisher, senior auto engineer for Consumer Reports.

Not all good news
That doesn’t mean the industry is fully recovered, even though the signs are encouraging, noted industry veteran Vic Doolan, former president of both BMW’s and Volvo’s North American operations.

Indeed, auto sales in November were stable for the most part. Any significant uptick in sales may only come when Americans are no longer fretting about jobs.

The job market showed some signs of improvement in November. Businesses shed 11,000 jobs, the lowest monthly job losses since the recession began in December 2007, and the unemployment rate dipped to 10 percent.

Doolan also pointed to notable omissions at the show, referring to the continued absence of major manufacturers from the circuit.

Nissan’s prestige brand Infiniti revealed its all-new M and mildly refreshed G sedans at an off-site event the night before the show opened. Mercedes-Benz exhibited its new SLS AMG ultra-performance sport coupe at its show stand but didn't hold a press conference to officially unveil the swoopy new car to the American audience following its introduction at the company’s home show in Frankfurt two months ago.

Ferrari skipped the show entirely despite having a brand new model named the Ferrari California.

These were the exceptions rather than the rule, he said, predicting that they would return in the following years.

Debut of new cars
The twinkling stars of the show were the Audi R8 Roadster, a drop-top version of the already unexpectedly sexy sports car from normally straight-laced Audi, and a whimsical three-seat subcompact from Honda called the Personal-Neo Urban Transport (P-NUT).

Though the P-NUT’s glassy front end could never pass a government crash test in its current form, the car serves as a viable exploration of consumer interest in unorthodox seating with the central driver’s seat flanked by a pair of back-seat passenger pillions.

Porsche unveiled the Boxster Spyder, a lighter-weight, higher-performance version of the company’s much-loved mid-engined roadster. The Spyder simultaneously helped boost the industry’s mood and offset criticism by purists who decry Porsche’s move into sedans and SUVs rather than concentrating on elemental sports cars like the Boxster.

Another, even tinier convertible was the Mini Roadster concept, an open-top version of the two-seat, chopped-top Mini Coupe concept that debuted at Frankfurt.

Volkswagen also debuted a concept subcompact car, but one that is much closer to a planned production model. The Up! Lite concept presages a three-door hatchback version of the upcoming Up subcompact which will come to market in 2012, according to the company.

The car will debut in VW’s native Germany with a small internal combustion engine. It may be followed by a U.S. version which could feature battery electric power, depending on the state of the technology and the market for such cars in 2013, according to Ulrich Hackenberg VW’s research and development boss.

The Up! Lite takes its name from its svelte 1,500 pound curb weight, a reduction compared to current models that contributes to the car’s expected 70 mpg in gasoline-powered form. That weight is accomplished through the use of lightweight carbon fiber in the concept car’s roof and wheels. A lower-cost, high-volume manufacturing process could potentially make the roof realistic for production in such models eventually, Hackenberg said.

Ford, meanwhile, showed that it aims to make the road for imported subcompacts a little tougher, with the introduction of the U.S. version of its Fiesta subcompact.

The Cruze
Recognizing that Americans still prefer a little size, even in their small cars, Fisher said the compact Chevrolet Cruze, also making its U.S. debut, was the most significant introduction in L.A.

“The is the highest [sales] volume of anything we’ve seen here. Nothing else is going to sell 200,000 units,” Fisher said.

While Chevrolet has participated in the same segment with the dismal Cavalier and the modest Cobalt, the Cruze represents a much more competitive entry in the segment. “Finally Chevy is taking small cars seriously. They are putting in technology none of the Japanese competitors have,” such as a downsized turbocharged engine and six-speed transmissions, advances that earn the Cruze 40 mpg on the EPA’s highway fuel economy cycle, he said.

Covering some of the larger vehicle segments, Hyundai rolled out its next-generation Sonata mid-sized family sedan, which is notable for Hyundai’s decision to eschew a V6 engine option in a bread-and-butter family sedan, and the new Tuscon compact crossover SUV. Corporate sibling Kia showed a mid-sized seven-seat Sorrento crossover SUV and Toyota had the honor of introducing the largest vehicle at the eco-conscious L.A. show with the latest iteration of its Sienna minivan, freshly available with a fuel-sipping four-cylinder engine.

Another traditional V6 engine application is in the domestic near-luxury segment, but Buick revealed its new Regal sedan with a variety of four-cylinder engines.

Mitsubishi refreshed its Lancer compact and Outlander crossover models and revealed an all-new compact crossover that the company announced will bear the catchy moniker, “RVR.”

Though Mitsubishi's new RVR crossover may be as short of vowels as the Los Angeles river is frequently short of water, the L.A. auto show was pleasantly packed with new cars of both style and substance, hinting that spring for the industry may arrive in December this year.