The annual auto shows are usually an opportunity for the world's carmakers to put on the ritz, but these are straitened times. I've seen carmakers set up indoor off-road courses and let thrill-crazed journalists romp through them in mud-splattered Jeeps, but this was not one of those years.
Ford's Fusion Hybrid: a car of the future.
General Motors, whose CEO was in Washington begging for a $25 billion bailout, decided that it would not, after all, introduce its new Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac CTS Coupe at this week's Los Angeles Auto Show. GM is burning through $2 billion in cash a month, and could run out of money early next year. Its sales declined 45 percent in October.
Chrysler, also burning through billions, declined to showcase any new models in Los Angeles or hold the usual gala press conferences.
Ford, with sales down 18 percent this year, could afford to debut new models because it just earned $540 million selling the lion's share of its stake in Mazda. The 2010 Mustang may get the headlines, but probably more important to the future of the company are a pair of hybrid sedans, the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan.
The Fusion looks like quite a credible entry. It can reach 47 mph on its nickel-metal-hydride battery pack alone, after which a 2.5-liter, 155-horsepower four (coupled with a CVT transmission) kicks in. It has a 700-mile range, and an estimated overall 38 mpg.
Making a keynote address in Los Angeles, Nissan/Renault boss Carlos Ghosn made it clear that, to save itself, the auto industry needs to go electric. "The one thing that is certain is that people will continue to drive cars," he said. "But what kind of cars?"
Nissan is answering that question with a still somewhat mysterious battery car that is scheduled to be on the U.S. and Japanese markets by 2010. Ghosn predicted there would be 10 million EVs in the world by 2016, and the U.S. will have five million of them.
Ghosn said the planet's health depends on zero-emission EVs. China, he said, has 50 cars for every 1,000 people, compared to 800 per thousand in the U.S. "We will need another planet if China catches up to the U.S.," Ghosn said. "If the rest of the world then catches up to China and the U.S. we're going to need 11 planets."
Stuff like that is usually heard from the podium at a Greenpeace rally, so it's a clear sign that the times they are a changin'. Another intriguing introduction came from Toyota, which trumped its successful Camry Hybrid with a car sure to warm the cockles of T. Boone Pickens' heart. The new Camry Hybrid prototype runs on natural gas.
Toyota's CNG Camry hybrid.
The spare-tire well holds a pair of compressed natural gas (CNG) tanks, holding the equivalent of eight gallons of gasoline and yielding a range of 250 miles. The Camry Hybrid is clean enough, but the CNG version offers lower levels of particulate emissions, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The downside is 10 percent less engine power and a scarcity of natural gas stations-less than 1,000 in the U.S. It's not surprising that there's only one production CNG car actually on the market, the Honda Civic GX.
I agree with Wired, which says that the most important car at the LA show may well be the Honda Insight hybrid, which is pitched at the low end of the market. With a list price of around $19,000, it is several thousand dollars less than the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius hybrids. The Insight uses nickel-metal-hydride batteries and a 1.3-liter gasoline engine, with performance said to approximate that of the Prius, 48 mpg in the city, 45 on the highway. Honda wants to sell 200,000 of the new Insights, half of those in the U.S.
Ron Cogan's Green Car Journal honored the Volkswagen TDI diesel this year. Not a bad choice, and certainly better than last year's pick, the bloated Chevy Tahoe Hybrid. The five-passenger Jetta sells for $21,990, and its clean diesel technology-and excellent 41-mpg fuel economy-has found 8,000 buyers in the U.S. so far.
One more car worth mentioning from the LA show is the electric Mini E. BMW brought a fleet of these to Los Angeles. There will be 500 of them on the road, with 5,088 AC Propulsion lithium-ion batteries located in what was the back seat. These cars, with some driveline similarities to the Tesla Roadster, will be leased for $850 a month to lucky customers in New York and LA. The car has 120 miles of range, reaches 60 mph from a standing stop in eight seconds, and is speed-governed at 95 mph.
The Mini E: 500 to be leased.
So it's fair to say the colors of the 2008 LA Auto Show were blue (for the industry's grim mood) and green (because that's the way the industry is going).
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