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November 25, 2011

LA Auto Show 2011: So Many Cars, So Little Time

The Los Angeles Auto Show is BIG -- so big, that it fills all 720,000 square feet of the city's Convention Center with the latest offerings of automakers large and small, domestic and exotic, customizers, accessorizers and a few surprises. Its size practically guarantees that each year, there will be something to interest everyone, including women. The LA Auto Show opened on November 18 and runs through Thanksgiving weekend, so pack up the kids and have some fun and go see the show this Thanksgiving weekend!

Scenes from 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show

If last year's show vibrated with the energy of a recharged auto industry, this year feels like a more refined affair. The exhibits display a more elegant sensibility as the automakers get back to the business of wowing the customers with advanced technology and gorgeous style.

Going Retro

2012 Dodge Challenger 2012 Fiat 500 by Gucci

The Big Three American automakers all seem to by vying for the attention of Boomer males by re-issuing modern versions of their classic muscle cars, and crowds were clamoring in LA to see high performance SRT8 versions of Dodge's Charger and Challenger, the Ford Mustang Boss and Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. I can see the fun factor in revving around town in one of these powerful updated classics.

But my girlfriends and I were more intrigued by models that evoked a different kind of nostalgia, like the new Gucci version of Fiat's cute 500, itself a re-imagining of the Italian automaker's original little city car. From the designer's famed green and red stripes to the distinctive interlocking G logo on the wheels, you can drive this beauty off the lot for less than you'd think: MSRP starts at $23,500. And yes, there is a line of Gucci-designed bags and other accessories to go with it (although these are offered at exactly the price you'd expect to pay for Gucci).

For those who want cute AND performance, the LA Auto Show marked the debut of the Abarth, a souped-up incarnation of the Fiat 500 based on Karl Abarth's like-named Fiat racecars of the 1960's. Its scorpion logo indicates that the Abarth's target market is probably not the same one that's watching all those commercials with J.Lo. 

Chrysler200ConvertibleElsewhere at the Chrysler exhibit, I couldn't help staring at their shiny new 200 convertible. Yes, I know that by any other name, this car is a Sebring -- but its smart redesign and retractable hard top option make it look sweet.

The model on the show floor featured a luxurious top-stitched leather interior and dash with Sirius/XM satellite radio and Uconnect, Chrysler's super-intuitive, state-of-the-art touchscreen communications system. 

New Uconnect refinements in 2012 include the ability to use its Garmin navigation function via voice command while the car is in motion. 

One of the features that distinguishes Chrysler's in-vehicle communications system is that the high-tech touchscreen is set alongside the traditional button and knob controls so many of us grew up with -- giving you the option of operating it the old-fashioned way.

And to punctuate that traditionalism, above the touchscreen of the 200 is an analog clock, reminiscent of the 1960's.

As much as I adore technology, it is touches like this little jewel of a clock that made the 200 convertible the first Chrysler-made vehicle on my auto show favorites list since the debut of the PT Cruiser a dozen years ago.

Technology, Safety and Safety Technology


Chrysler's Uconnect system is an example of how the highway and the "Information highway" have merged in recent years. Just about all of the automakers had demonstrations of in-vehicle telematics systems, with names like MyTouch (Ford), iDrive (BMW) Entune (Toyota), Blue Link (Hyundai), Uvo (Kia). Cadillac debuted the new CUE system, which will be available on their gorgeous 2013 XTS sedan (which also debuted at the show). CUE stands for Cadillac User Experience, and the interface should be highly intuitive for anyone who already owns an iPhone.

One of the most striking observations about this year's L.A. Auto Show is how cutting edge technology available only on luxury cars a few years ago has trickled down to entry level models: Bluetooth, USB connection, Pandora Internet radio and SMS voice messaging are just a few technologies that are being offered as standard features of cars in all price points.

2012 Honda CR-V 2012 VW CC

Honda's redesigned 2012 CR-V is one of many vehicles with standard equipment that now includes a rearview camera. The popular crossover also comes equipped standard cruise control, Bluetooth HandsFreeLink, multi-information display (i-MID), remote entry, and Motion-Adaptive Electric Power Steering (EPS).

The 2012 Volkswagen CC features a dashboard seatbelt status indicator, so you you can see if passengers are buckled up, without craning your neck. It also has a fatigue detection system that monitors factors like steering angle to assess those times when a driver appears to be losing focus. It then emits an audible warning and visual message recommending that the driver take a break.  

The programmable Ford MyKey helps parents assure their teen drivers are following safety guidelines by giving them the ability to limit the vehicle's speed and music system volume control.

Ford has aslo refined their MyTouch system, which was designed to be easily upgradable via a USB stick the company will be issuing its current customers. Among the changes are a cleaner-looking home screen, larger fonts, next turn information that's now easier to see at the top of the screen. And then, there's my favorite new function: If you're running low on gas, the MyTouch map will populate itself with nearby gas stations.

One of the most advanced safety systems at the show is the "pre-sense system" available on Audi's 2013 S8 high performance luxury sedan, which uses cameras and radar to identify whether you are about to have a potential accident. If is senses an impending incident, it will automatically prepare the car for potential impact by automatically braking, and adding brake assist, because drivers don't necesarily have the strength or realize how much pressure they need in order to avert a crash. The system will also tighten the safety belts and ready (but not deploy) airbags, and raise the windows to avoid any intrusive elements into the car.

What a Concept

No auto show would be complete without the presence of concept cars, illustrating the unbridled imagination of automotive designers and engineers. You won't find these vehicles on any dealer lots -- at least, not yet. Some do end up in production; others serve as testing ground for innovations that find their way into other vehicles.

Volvo Concept You BMW i8 All Electric Concept

I confess: I got distracted while speaking with a Volvo spokeswoman about improved safety on the XC60 the Swedish company debuted last year (it's been NHTSA-rated five stars), because I could not take my eyes off the big, blue luxury car turning on a platform behind her.

The other women in our group felt the same way: The Volvo Concept You is having its US debut at Los Angeles (it was first unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show last month).  This sleek, sexy vehicle provides a glimpse of what Volvo designers have in mind for their next generation of their flagship S80 model, and it resembles a Jaguar XJ.

Surprisingly, Volvo is planning to power the full-sized coupe with a four-cylinder engine, augmented by a flywheel drive to provide extra power without compromising fuel efficiency. 

The interior combines the expected luxury leather, suede and wood elements in a unique way (it has a wooden floor). Driver controls on the Concept You are powered via a touchscreen system that resembles an iPad. 

BMW went back to the future with their i8 concept: a plug-in hybrid sports car with gull-wing doors that made me think of what the DeLorean might look like now, if the company had managed to stay in business. And in another nod to the movies, a version of this model will be seen in the next Mission Impossible picture, opening in December.

BMW is also displaying its i3 Concept, described as a solution for urban mobility abd sustainability. The all-electric i3 reduced size of battery that produces a range of up to 100 miles on a single charge.

"There is no question that we will build production versions of these vehicles," announced BMW North America CEO Ludwig Willisch at their Los Angles unveiling. 

Green Cars Making Their Mark

One of the most exciting aspects of this year's show is the annual presentation of the Green Car of the Year award, and the expanding list of vehicles that vie for that honor each year. Previous winners like Chevrolet's Volt and Nissan Leaf are starting to appear on Southern California roads. And just about every automaker at the show is displaying vehicles with eco-boost type engines, hybrids and cars that run on other alternate fuels.

Other noteworthy entries in this category are Kia's Optima hybrid, the expansion of the Prius line to include a subcompact, a plug-in, and the larger V and the Ford Focus Electric.

119_2808The 2011 Green Car of the Year winner is Honda's Civic Natural Gas, which has nearly zero emissions and has been certified by EPA as the cleanest internal combustion vehicle on the market. It is also the only one that is built here in the United States.

The CNG-fueled version of the Civic is a car whose time has finally come. The infrastructure to keep it powered has grown to the point where Honda feels confident in expanding its availability to 200 dealers in 36 states. 

Honda is also showing an all-electric version of its popular Fit subcompact. set to arrive in showrooms next summer. The battery on the Fit EV is estimated to give drivers a range of 126 city miles on a single charge, which should alleviate range anxiety for most commuters. 

119_2924One of the green highlights of last year's show is now hitting American shores: Mitsubishi's futuristic looking electric subcompact, the i (formerly introduced to the US market as the i-MiEV). 

One of the i's biggest selling points is its low manufacturer's suggested retail price: $21,625 (after estimated tax savings), which makes this a good choice for someone who wants to go green but hasn't been able to justify the extra initial cost of going electric or hybrid.

The i also has a low cost of ownership, witih an official EPA MPGe rating of 126 city and 99 Highway (MPGe is a new figure EPA uses on electric vehicles to compare efficiency with that of gasoline-powered engines). Mitsubishi says the i's range is 62 miles per charge.

Driving the i was comparable to other economy models on the market. It's responsive and handles nicely. The only clue that the car runs on electricity is the lack of engine noise.

The simple cloth interior is not luxurious, but is consistent with the i's environmental mission: according to company spokesman Jim Hall (who accompanied me on my drive), Mitsubishi utilized sustainable materials wherever they could -- including the vehicle's carpet and upholstery. 

The Los Angeles Auto Show opened on November 18 and runs through Thanksgiving weekend.

2010by Donna Schwartz Mills
Contributing Editor

Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer who also contributes to CBS Digital Local Los Angeles, the Yahoo! Motherboard and her personal site,SoCal Mom.

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