Vail Daily cars: Electric cars all the rage at L.A. Auto Show |

Vail Daily cars: Electric cars all the rage at L.A. Auto Show

Andy Stonehouse
Vail Daily Correspondent
Special to the Vail Daily/Andy StonehouseVail Daily cars: BMW's Vision concept car was a head-turner at the L.A. Auto show, but the company also introduced some 'Active Hybrid' vehicles.

LOS ANGELES – Of all of the absurdities still continuing to face the beleaguered auto industry, Wednesday’s press kick-off to the annual L.A. Auto Show packed a doozy – an 11th-hour change of keynote speakers, courtesy of Tuesday’s major shakeup at General Motors.

Just a few hours before he was scheduled to provide an update to the press, GM president and CEO Fritz Henderson (featured in the manufacturer’s recent “May the Best Car Win” ad campaign) spontaneously parted company with GM; very newly appointed boss Bob Lutz stepped in, joking to reporters that he was the company’s “last minute substitute,” but refusing to discuss any details of the sudden regime change.

Lutz’s presentation – mostly an update on the now very much fast-tracked Chevrolet Volt electric car – underscored the still-precipitous state of the auto business, although the general tone and mood at this year’s auto show seemed hugely improved and more positive than last year’s event.

“It’s been an extraordinary year, but there’s still a long way to go,” Lutz said. “We do have a much better foundation for success than we could have imagined last year. And we are positioned to be profitable, so we can start to pay back our stimulus loans.”

Lutz said a big part of GM’s long-term strategy is an “unprecedented focus” on green technology, including a blend of electric- and biofuel-powered vehicles, plus improved fuel efficiency across the automaker’s four remaining brands. GM has committed to efforts including a science lab in China, a Brazil-based institute studying the production of non-food-sourced biofuels, plus a partnership with Indian car company Reva to build electric vehicles.

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Leading the charge, literally, is the Volt, a “very real and on-schedule,” extended-range electric automobile designed to go as far as 40 miles per charge of its 16 kW/hour lithium ion battery pack. It’s coupled with a small, gas-powered engine that can add 200 to 300 miles to the Volt’s operational capacity, which Lutz said helps reduce the “range anxiety” felt by drivers of all-electric vehicles who are not sure how long their batteries’ charge will last.

While a limited number of the cars are being made available to test fleets, Lutz says early 2011 should see full production of approximately 10,000 Volts for customers across the country. He said he estimates total electric car sales in five years will reach 250,000 to 300,000 units, with GM producing a considerable share.

Out on the show floor, GM wasn’t the only company pushing the electric issue, with manufacturers including BMW, Volkswagen and Honda all debuting new gas-electric hybrids, a few of which will soon appear as showroom models.

BMW’s new “ActiveHybrid” versions of the X6 and the 7 series feature gas-electric engine blends that not only lower fuel consumption by 15 percent, but produce incredibly powerful and fast machines.

The $103,000 ActiveHybrid 7 sports 455 horsepower and can reach 0-60 in 4.7 seconds. The company also debuted its Vision concept car, a 62-miles-per-gallon, 155-mph diesel-electric supercar with see-through body panels and glowing blue kidney grille air inlets.

BMW subsidiary Mini is also continuing the test deployment of the all-electric Mini-E, with 400 automobiles facing real-world testing.

Volkswagen’s futuristic Up!Lite, a small, sleek, silvery two-door four-seater featuring a rear hatch rather reminiscent of a Volvo C30, also had its world debut, with a diesel-electric system promising 70 miles per gallon. Honda’s awkwardly shaped (and named ) P-NUT – “Personal Neo Urban Transport” – also offers a glimpse of the far-off future of small, urban-oriented vehicles.

On the more traditional side, the 2010 L.A. Auto Show was also the gathering point for the legion of Tweeting and Facebooking Fiesta Movement “Agents,” who have been using social media to spread the word about the small but comfortable, European-styled Ford.

The American launch of the downsized but sporty Mazda2 included a visit by actor and racing enthusiast Patrick Dempsey, while Porsche celebrated the arrival of its new, lightweight and race-oriented, 320-horsepower Boxster Spyder, accurately described by presenters as a “super sexy looking car.”

The particularly well-heeled might appreciate the new Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe, a 453-horsepower V12-powered, $530,000 behemoth featuring teak paneling, a polished aluminum hood and hand-painted pinstriping.

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