Friday, November 23, 2007

Los Angeles Auto Show 2007


The Los Angeles Auto Show is one of the biggest in the United States, and the first major show of the season. It features introductions of new production and concept vehicles before they are available to the public.

I had never attended a major show before, but I was determined to change that this year. So, I got up early and flew Southwest down for the two days reserved for the automotive press before the show opens to the public.

An eager horde of reporters converged on the beautifully staged displays and crowded together for 28 different press conferences. We plowed through the complimentary breakfasts and lunches and ran back out for more activity.

The beauty of seeing the show this way is that everyone is available to talk with you. That meant that I could have tea with Ian Robertson, the chairman and chief executive of Rolls-Royce. I sat inside the new MINI Clubman and chatted with the vice president of MINI, Jim McDowell. At Bentley, I got a tour around the 600-horsepower Continental GT Speed from the chief designer of the car, Raul Pires; I also spoke with Bentley’s North American Marketing chief, Julian Jenkins. Both Rolls-Royce and Bentley are doing just fine, thank you.

Later, the chief designer of Jaguar joined me inside a Jaguar and discussed his newest project, the brand new XF performance sedan. Jaguar’s chief engineer for the XF project, Mick Mohan, was in the back seat adding commentary on how this beautiful vehicle got produced. Just before I left the Convention Center I spent time with Dennis Glavis, who has a lifetime of driving and working with Morgans, the amazingly powerful yet traditional sports cars.

But the show wasn’t only about incredibly powerful and expensive cars. At the Volkswagen stand they showed the space up! blue. This zero emissions concept, which resembles a tiny VW microbus, uses a the world’s first high temperature fuel cell and can go up to 65 miles on electricity alone. Its doors swing open from the outer edges on both sides, creating a complete see-through vehicle. Volkswagen may sell this amazing little car here in a couple years in some form.

Actually, green cars were a major feature of this year’s show. Notable here was Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle. Hydrogen cars have not only been out of reach of the public as they go through development, they’ve been pretty utilitarian looking as well. Not the Clarity. It’s a beautiful 21st-century ride and it will be leased in small but significant quantities to Southern Californians starting next summer for $600/month for three years. Why none in the San Francisco Bay Area yet? No place to fill up with hydrogen.

On the morning of the second press day, the Green Car Journal presented its Green Car of the Year award to the huge Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid. With its 6.0-liter gas/electric powertrain, the hybrid Tahoe gets 50 percent better mileage than the standard Tahoe, which uses a 5.3-liter V-8. Mileage of 21 City is impressive—you get a huge 7-passenger family hauler that drinks gas like a Toyota Camry four-cylinder sedan. Dodge showed its hybrid Durango, which will offer another choice for the same buyers.

After the Green Car award presentation, California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger spoke with throngs of journalists about his enthusiasm for green vehicles in Caleeforneeah, and then cruised through the show with his retinue of photographers and bodyguards. I ran into him at the BMW stand and later at the Bentley area. I told people he was following me.

I communed with my personal favorite, the MINI Clubman. This slightly longer MINI, which debuts early next year, features nine-and-a-half extra inches of length and more than three additional inches of wheelbase. This gives rear passengers much more legroom and easier access through a passenger side extra door that flips open. The back of the car features twin “barn doors” that spring open with a gentle flip of the lever and add lots of loading capacity and utility. Prices will not be much more than the standard little MINIs.

Everyone was friendly. I struck up a conversation with Elizabeth, who was working at the Yokohama Tire stand. She was very excited about an audition she had coming up for a part in a small film. That’s LA for you. The Yokohama display featured a tire made with a high percentage of orange oil, which not only results in a very grippy and better-smelling tire, but uses much less petroleum in its manufacture.

The show was an exhausting but exhilarating experience. I’m already planning to attend next year.

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