LOS ANGELES -- I love L.A., and not just because of that Randy Newman song. If you ignore the traffic snarls, the smog and the crime, you can find great neighborhoods, incredible food trucks, amazing music — and a very high state of green awareness.
Believe it or not, although I'm a regular in Detroit, this is my first Los Angeles Auto Show, and I decided to come because the bill of fare was irresistibly green. And the show lived up to its billing — I was immersed in cutting-edge electric vehicle programs for two full days that left me drained. It will take a while to sort it all out, but here are a few vignettes from the floor:
Fisker mania: Unfortunately, Henrik Fisker stood me up for a morning interview, but I got a tour of the high-end plug-in hybrid car from spokesman Russell Datz. This was the first car off the assembly line in Finland, and I was impressed with the build quality improvement from the early prototypes. It feels like a real car now. One can see beyond the green gee-gaws, which include zero-emission Bridge of Weir leather and wood inserts saved from California forest fires. But this is all based on sitting behind the wheel in an immobile car that looks like it's hitting the 125 mph top speed when it's standing still. Test drives are promised by early next year, just months before the car goes on the market in March. Here's a video look at the Fisker Karma on the show floor:
I love L.A.: The city and the state are going all out to embrace electric vehicles. Outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was incredibly EV-friendly, but so is incoming Gov. Jerry Brown. The city's mayor, Anthony Villaraigosa, was on hand to promise to streamline the long wait for installing an electric vehicle charger. And the Electric Drive Transportation Association announced GoElectricDrive.com to help consumers understand EVs. California has 12 percent of the registered cars in the U.S., but 26 percent of its hybrids. Expect to see 450,000 EVs on state roads by 2020.
Hyundai goes green: There are more than 50 electric, hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles on display here in Los Angeles, but one of the most interesting cars is conventional, the new Hyundai Elantra. For less than $15,000, buyers get a sharply styled four-door sedan with an ultra-cool interior and, yes, 40 mpg on the highway. I sat down with Michael J. O'Brien, a veteran car guy who is now vice president of product planning at Hyundai. The Elantra, he said, fits in with Hyundai's 50-mpg fleet average goals, and it uses clever mechanical touches such as variable intake and exhaust valve timing and strategic use of high-strength steel to achieve stellar mileage without a hybrid drive. The car weighs just 2,661 pounds, and it's much easier to move a light car than a heavy one. The Hyundai Sonata hybrid is another standout, and now it's joined by a Kia Optima sibling. Oh, and by the way, Hyundai knows how to hold a party: The swinging affair featured mermaids and fire dancers, waiters in fezzes handing out Middle Eastern food, and a lively performance by actor Jeff Bridges (who does the voiceover for Hyundai commercials) singing the songs from "Crazy Heart" with backing from the T. Bone Burnett Band. It beat out Mitsubishi's bowling party, I'm afraid to say.
Fast charge: I've written before about 480-volt fast charging, and I was able to experience it firsthand with the Mitsubishi I-MiEV. This Japanese car (right-hand drive in the version I piloted) is coming to the U.S. in slightly enlarged form, and I was able to plug it in to a mobile, truck-mounted fast-charger (at left) that can get it mostly ready to go (80 percent) in 20 minutes. Impressive. The fast charge handle is heavier than the J1772 standard for 220-volt charging, but it was not much harder to use. The I-MiEV and some Nissan Leafs will be equipped for this kind of fast charging, but the U.S. has yet to decide if it will develop its own standard, or embrace the Japanese form, which goes by the colorful name CHAdeMO.
Some highlights of the show, for me, included a drive in the Volvo C30 electric, a ride from the airport in the Chevy Volt, a chance to see the Nissan Leaf on the brink of introduction, ambitious startups from Coda, Wheego and AMP Electric Vehicles, and a lot more. It was a great show.
Related on MNN: 10 standout cars from the Los Angeles Auto Show