I’m planning to attend the Los Angeles Auto Show next week, and it’s shaping up as exceptionally green. On hand, and available for test drives, will be a bunch of vehicles I’ve just gawked at in photos or YouTube videos, or maybe seen all polished on a show stand.
It’s going to be a lot of fun. There’s a bit of ride-and-drive, so I’ll be tooling around in these exotic cars under a hot Hollywood sun. They call it work — and even pay me for it! Here’s a partial lineup that leaves out many of the mainstream entries:
1. Fiat 500: The best thing about Chrysler’s alliance with the Italian automaker is access to cars like this for the American market. The 500 Cinquecento is a sharply designed retromobile that evokes the super-cute original Fiat 500. The resemblance to the New Beetle is intentional, but there’s a difference — the nostalgia thing is less potent here, because the 500 has no history in the U.S. An all-electric 500 is coming, as is a convertible.
2. Honda electric vehicles: Honda has been a naysayer for everything but hybrids and diesels, but new CEO Takanobu Ito (who will be in L.A.) is bullish. “It’s starting to look like there will be a market for electric vehicles,” he said. And that means Honda is bringing both an urban, battery-operated commuter car and a plug-in hybrid concept to Los Angeles. Honda’s EVs, both of which are slated for U.S. sales in 2012, will initially be tested in California test programs at Google, Stanford University and the city of Torrance.
3. Kia Optima Hybrid: This joins the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid in the Korean carmaker’s stable. What do we know about it? Performance is supposed to match the Sonata with 37 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway. There will be a 2.4-liter four under the hood, and battery-only driving until 62 mph. Sales are supposed to begin early next year.
4. Toyota RAV4 EV concept: This is the car Elon Musk’s magnetic personality forced into being. Toyota has invested $50 million in Tesla, and the first fruit of their collaboration is a revival of the electric RAV-4, which is headed for the market in 2012. Some lucky survivors of the first edition, which was a contemporary of the GM EV-1, somehow managed to escape the crusher and are still on the road with Ed Begley Jr., Plug-In America’s Paul Scott and Tom Hanks among their celebrity owners.
5. Wheego LiFe: The funky Wheego is a Smart-like, two-seat electric vehicle based on a Chinese chassis, but based in Atlanta and assembled in California. It probably has the distinction of being the first mass-market EV (after Tesla, anyway) on the U.S. market, which is why CEO Mike McQuary wanted to claim Obama bucks for “the first 100 EVs off American assembly lines.” I think Obama was talking about the Volt, though.
6. Coda sedan: Coda’s car is also China-sourced, but it’s a four-door sedan that will be marketed initially in California only. A couple of recent setbacks: The resignation this month of high-profile CEO Kevin Czinger (he was Coda) and a relatively high price tag. But spokesman K. Forrest Beanum told me that Coda is on track, and that Czinger will be retained as a senior advisor as the company searches for a CEO with manufacturing and marketing experience.
7. Chevrolet Volt: Yes, I’ve driven it multiple times in various guises, but not the actual production car. This will be my first encounter since GM revealed that the “range extender” Volt isn’t all electric, all the time. Above 30 mph, the gas engine runs the cars sometimes. But all the pre-production hoopla is over now, and the rubber is finally hitting the road this month.
8. Nissan Leaf: The Leaf is similarly headed for the market, and just about everyone who’s driven it (including me) loves it. It’s fast, quiet, high-tech, nice-looking, everything you’d want in a car (except the 300-mile range). The big test will be gauging the size of the early-adopter market. How many people will go from admirers to owners when the car goes on sale next month?
9. Volvo electric C30: Volvo’s Paul Gustavsson recently told me that the company is getting very gung-ho on electric cars with new Chinese owners (Geely) and ex-VW CEO Stefan Jacoby. The company had green-lighted the electric C30 before all that, but now (with batteries from American supplier Ener1) it’s headed for U.S. and Chinese test programs. Also coming from Volvo is a plug-in hybrid that will be diesel in Europe, unleaded in the U.S.
10. Mitsubishi I-MiEV: The small electric vehicle that’s been running around for a few years is a bit dated, so the car will debut a new name and a redesign (featuring a wider stance) in Los Angeles. It's Mini-sized now, with bigger bumpers. The styling is still love-it-or-hate-it, though.
So lots of cool stuff, some of it totally new. I can't wait.