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The L.A. Auto Show Is Back and Greener Than Ever

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Where the Rubber Meets Downtown

by Ryan Vaillancourt

The L.A. Auto Show Is Back and Greener Than Ever


The Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid vehicle made by General Motors,

will make its North American debut at the L.A. Auto Show this week.

Photo courtesy of the L.A. Auto Show.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The economy is in a tailspin and Detroit's Big 3 automakers are in peril. If there's good news for drivers, it's that gas prices have plunged lately, but few expect that trend to stick.

So it's not exactly the financial climate that lends itself to consumer excitement about flashy new cars. Still, organizers of the L.A. Auto Show, which returns to Downtown for its 101st edition this week, aren't letting the gloomy economy spoil the party.

Instead, they're featuring a growing selection of new cars that try to capitalize on price- and fuel economy-conscious consumers, said Brendan Flynn, the Auto Show's director of communications.

"I think more than any other year we're seeing the environment and the economy really play a role in what we're seeing on the show floor," Flynn said. "If there's a theme to the show this year, it's that the auto industry is responding to the consumer wanting more choices."

That means that visitors to the Los Angeles Convention Center Nov. 21-30 will find more cars with smaller and more efficient engines, more alternative fuel-powered vehicles, more hybrids and a sampling of cars that are just plain small.

Take Nissan's highly anticipated Cube. A favorite small car in Japan since the early 1990s, a new Cube will have its United States debut at a pre-event show on Thursday. The latest version in Japan measures about 12 feet 3 inches, or more than 18 inches shorter than a Volkswagen Rabbit. While Nissan has kept the 2009 Cube specs close to the vest, the new model is likely to stay true to character, said Darryll Harrisson, a Nissan spokesman.

The Cube is one of more than 20 models making their North American debut at the Downtown Los Angeles showcase, and nearly 20 more vehicles will have their world premiere, Flynn said.

Also making its North American debut is the Volt, a plug-in hybrid from General Motors. The model's unveiling may come with a cloud over its head, since GM's financial condition is so grave that the company recently announced it only has enough cash to run its global operations until January. GM had planned to send its vice chairman, Bob Lutz, to unveil a new Buick model at the show, but canceled in a cost-cutting effort.

But the Volt, hoped to be a game changer for a company whose bread and butter has been in the truck and SUV realm, will still be on hand, Flynn said.

Eco-Friendly Evolution

The streets of Downtown are no strangers to environmentally friendly vehicles. Hybrids have been cruising the city for about eight years, and since 2006, their drivers have been permitted to zip along freeway carpool lanes even when they're not carrying a passenger.

But the driving force behind demand for green cars is changing, said Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal and greencars.com, which will select a Green Car of the Year at the L.A. Auto Show.

Whereas early demand for green cars stemmed primarily from environmentally conscious consumers looking to minimize their carbon footprint, today's green car market includes a larger group of buyers thinking first and foremost with their pocketbooks, he said.

Hybrid and electric vehicles, for example, tend to be more expensive than their all gasoline-powered cousins, but with gas prices bouncing, drivers are looking to get more bang for their buck at the pump, Cogan said.

"Very few people would step up and pay extra for a car that happened to be green, and relatively few people had environmental performance or fuel economy on their shopping list," Cogan said. "That's changed, with fuel prices being what they've been. That's what's driving interest."

One example of buyers and makers alike eyeing fuel economy is the emerging trend of "clean diesel" vehicles that burn a diesel fuel engineered to meet emission standards in all 50 states. Such cars have, on average, about 30% better fuel economy than traditional gasoline engines in similar sized cars, Cogan said.

No matter how much consumers are paying attention to fuel economy, the L.A. Auto Show wouldn't be the same without a hefty dosage of horsepower, plenty of V8 engines and futuristic bells and whistles.

Those who attend the show just to ogle will be able to feast their eyes on cars like the new Ferarri California, the famed Italian maker's first retractable hard-topped convertible. Its price tag is estimated at a cool $200,000.

"We always find it challenging to communicate that the auto show isn't a place to go shop for your next car," Flynn said. "It really is a fun thing to do whether you're fantasizing about your ultimate dream car and you want to get up close to it, or just have fun with the family."

The L.A. Auto Show runs Nov. 21-30 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St. More information at laautoshow.com.

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.

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