A Shade Greener
By Noel Adams
New Year's weekend had seen heavy rain, the first time it had rained on the Rose Parade in fifty years, but the sun was shining on January 5, 2006 as I pulled into the west parking lot at the Convention Center. It was time for my annual pilgrimage to the LA Auto Show.
I parked close to the EV charging station and noticed with delight that there were three Nissan Altras parked in front of the three chargers – a good omen perhaps.
I had been granted a media pass to the auto show once again, and this time I had decided to pass on the first day and attend the second in the naïve hope that the specialists who usually group in Kentia Hall would have their wares on display. Alas, it wasn't to be so I missed out on seeing the ZAP display with their version of the Smart ForTwo, upgraded to meet US safety standards, and the Chinese built three wheel EV called the Xebra, due to go on sale through ZAP dealers next month.
My first stop was in the South Hall where GM was hosting a breakfast to launch several new vehicles. I saw a friendly face sitting at one of the tables, Jay Goldman from AeroVironment. I had a chance to have a short chat with Jay before GM started their show and he brought me up-to-date on their fast charger system.
He told me, "We recognized that there wasn't much opportunity in the on-road vehicle market because nobody was making EVs anymore, but we realized that there were over 100,000 electric forklift trucks working every day in the US. We were fortunate to partner with Ford, who use electric forklift trucks extensively, and with American Airlines for their electric ground support vehicles. Before fast charging these companies often kept three battery packs per vehicle, one in the forklift, one being charged, and one cooling down. The vehicles had to go to a battery room to have the battery packs swapped out, a process that could keep the vehicle out of service for a long time. With our system, charging can be done right at the vehicles workstation during breaks. This keeps the forklift trucks in service, eliminates two battery packs, and no longer requires a staff in the battery room. Savings pay for the fast chargers in as little as three months. This niche has become a sixty million dollar per year business for us".
The GM presentation was hosted by Mark LaNeve, North American Vice President of Sales, Service and Marketing. Mark began by saying that GM have more vehicles that will do 30mpg or better than any other manufacturer. Then he rolled out their first new vehicle, the Pontiac Solstice GXP. This car cranks out 50% more power than the standard solstice. This seems to be the theme at the LA Auto show, announce the new vehicles at Detroit then put out a bigger, more powerful version for LA.
Next they announced the 2007 Aveo, the Korean built subcompact that has captured forty percent market share in the subcompact segment. The 2007 Aveo is longer, wider and taller than its predecessor but still gives a respectable 35mpg on the highway. The Aveo was tucked away at the corner of the stage like a poor stepchild.
Marks next announcement concerned the Corvette Z06, which will be the official pace car for the 2006 Daytona 500. Tonight show host Jay leno will drive the pace car and he was the one at the wheel when it was rolled onto the stage in LA.
Tucked away in the opposite corner to the Aveo was GMs next vehicle, a bio-diesel capable Saab station wagon. This car is currently being sold in Europe and will be introduced to the US market. Over the course of the day I visited the Saab stand several times but couldn't find anyone to ask if this vehicle will meet California emission standards and would be sold here in the golden state, nor if it was designed for 100% Biodiesel or the 10% blend that is often sold commercially.
GM also announced that they have entered into an agreement with the State of California, Chevron, and Pacific ethanol, to participate in demonstration project aimed at increasing the awareness and acceptance of E85, a blend of 15% gasoline and 85% Ethanol. GM already has 1.7 million E85 capable vehicles on the roads, and will be putting this into more vehicles in the future. I would be willing to bet that 1.6 million owners of these flex fuel vehicles don't even know they can use E85. Most of the other 100,000 live in Minnesota. I did see several GM vehicles with an Ethanol logo on the back, which should help matters.
Finally, GM launched the 2007 Suburban, a huge SUV that will seats 9. They talked about towing capacity and Jay Leno joked "Will this tow a Prius when the computer breaks down". Jay also mentioned that he has an electric car and called the Solstice a nice vehicle for use on weekends but not to get you to and from work, so we can forgive him this little transgression. The Suburban will come with displacement on demand that allows four of the eight cylinders to be shut down when cruising on the freeway, improving fuel economy over its predecessor.
The next big presentation was the Solutia Design awards. Solutia is one of the biggest manufacturers of automotive glass in the world, so its design awards reflect innovative ways to use glass in the design of an automobile. The two winners this year were the Citroen C4 and the Volvo 3CC.
Citroen don't market here in the US so the car was exhibited outside the West Hall. The Citroen C4 is a fairly ordinary European two door hatchback that has been fitted with glass, including a glass roof, which includes Infra-red absorbing nano-particles that allow more light in the cabin while reducing the effects of solar heat.
The Volvo 3CC was included with the Volvo exhibit in the West Hall so I made my way there as my next stop.
Immediately by the entrance to the West Hall was the Honda display. Once again Honda showed that it was a leader in the move towards more environmentally friendly transportation. On display was the usual line up of Honda Hybrids, the 2006 Civic Hybrid, the Accord Hybrid and the two seat Insight which Honda keeps building even though sales are less that 1500 per year.
Honda also had one of its Civic GX Compressed Natural Gas vehicles, the only CNG vehicle currently available to consumers. Next to the GX, Honda was also displaying the Phill, their new home refueling stations that allows you to refuel the GX overnight at home, reducing dependence on scarce infrastructure.
Rounding out their display was a FCX fuel cell vehicle. Realization is really starting to settle in that while hydrogen may seem like the ideal fuel on paper, it will be a long hard road before it becomes commercially viable and there is a strong possibility that it will never be more than an interesting experiment. Honda was the only company that I saw exhibit a hydrogen powered vehicle at this years LA Auto Show.
Missing from the Honda Line-up was the Fit, which is currently marketed around the world as the Jazz. Honda has elected to show the new subcompact at the Detroit Auto Show this year. Expect the Fit to get around 40 mpg in combined driving.
Next to the Honda Stand was Ford. Gone were their CNG vehicles, which they no longer make, but also gone was the giant Ford Excursion. There were plenty of other huge trucks and SUVs on display but the Escape Hybrid was front and center. Other offerings from Ford included the aging Focus and the Fusion. The Focus can be bought in a P-ZEV version that is low emission with no evaporative emissions, but I didn't see any P-ZEV stickers on the vehicles. The Ford Fusion is a nice mid sized sedan and is selling well for Ford. The fusion is rated by the EPA at 24 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, which compares with the fuel economy of other mid-sized sedans like the Toyota Camry.
The main vehicle of interest in the Mercury exhibit was the Mariner Hybrid. This hybrid is really a re-branding of the Escape Hybrid with slightly more upscale trim but very similar in overall performance and specifications. It comes with the same 2.4 liter Atkinson cycle engine and electric motor that gives fuel economy numbers of 33mpg in the city and 29 on the highway. This vehicle, like the Escape Hybrid, is rated P-ZEV, so it does produce substantially less exhaust and evaporative emissions than the none-hybrid version.
Volvo was my next stop. At the heart of their stand stood the 3CC, a diminutive three seat electric vehicle powered by an AC Propulsion power train and Lithium batteries. There were several Volvo reps, all dressed in turquoise suits and ready to answer questions about their vehicles. I asked about the 3CC and was told that the person who new about this wouldn't be in until 11am and to check back then. I went back several times but never found anyone really knowledgeable about the car. I did ask one rep if the car would ever be put into production and his response was that it is a concept car and would never be made. Too bad, we could really use a car like this.
Next to the 3CC, casting a dark shadow over the little electric, was a giant SUV. I thought to myself I bet this one gets made.
After a brief look at the gas guzzling Land Rover line, and the sexy new Jaguar XK Coupe, neither of which I would ever buy, I moved over to the Nissan exhibit. Nissan never fails to disappoint me and this year was no different. Nissan just doesn't seem to have gotten the message that they need to present a greener image. It's not that they don't make clean vehicles, the Nissan Sentra CA was the first P-ZEV vehicle certified by the California air resource board and they built two excellent EVs in the Altra and the Hypermini but never sold them to the public.
Like Honda, Nissan chose to launch its new Versa subcompact at the Detroit Auto Show and will most likely announce the new Altima Hybrid there. The Versa is expected to get a combined mileage of around 30mpg. The Altima hybrid, also expected to go on sale in 2006, uses a Hybrid Synergy drive system licensed from Toyota.
After my brief stop at the Nissan stand I hurried over to the concourse hall to check out the press conference at the Bugatti stand. Bugatti were debuting the Veyron, billed as the world's fastest production sports car. Sitting in the middle of their stand was a single sleek blue and black sports car that looked like a greyhound ready to chase the hare. Its sixteen cylinder power plant is capable of delivering over 1000 horsepower and a top speed of 250 mph. It can go zero to sixty in just over two seconds and at top speed consumes a staggering 1.3 gallons of gas per minute. At 1.2 million dollars they won't sell many but they told the gathered media people that the one on display was chassis number 6 of a planned run of 300. They had sold the display car the previous day but wouldn't disclose to whom.
Concourse hall was full of exotic sports cars from Maserati, Ferrari, Lotus Spyker and others. None of these cars are environmentally sound, but they would be a whole lot of fun to drive if I could afford the sky-high prices.
After lusting over the gorgeous sports cars for a while I moved on to the South Hall. The first thing that I encountered was the Jeep stand where the focus of their display appeared to be the Jeep Hurricane, an off road four wheel drive vehicle that obviously has its roots in the Jeep Wrangler.
Next to the Jeep stand I was pleased to see that Daimler Chrysler had returned the GEM to the main hall. For the last couple of years it had been relegated to Kentia Hall along with the companies that customize vehicles.
GEM had only two vehicles on display. The first was a new 2006 E6 six-passenger NEV painted in black, a new color for GEM. The second vehicle was a 2005 E4 four-passenger, fitted with hard doors.
I chatted with a knowledgeable GEM representative who told me that they had heard a lot of their customers asking for a six-passenger vehicle and had responded with the E6. He told me that there would also be an E6S; a six-passenger fitted with a short truck bed. The E6 is street legal, but the E6S will exceed the weight limits set by federal regulations so it won't be street legal, but will work well in campus type settings. Production of the E6 is expected to start in March and it should be in showrooms some time in early spring. GEM would also be increasing the number of options available with their vehicles including a steering wheel lock and a flat bed for the four-passenger. A new motor has also been incorporated to improve reliability.
My next stop was the Toyota stand. Toyota is the leader in Hybrid vehicles and had both the Prius Hybrid and the highlander hybrid on display. The previous day they had announced their new entry-level subcompact, the Yaris. The Yaris comes in both four-door and two-door hatchback configurations. Both the four-door and hatchback have a 1.5 liter 16 valve engine that delivers a rather disappointing EPA estimated mileage of 34 mpg city and 39 mpg on the highway – no better than the larger corolla. Still, with prices starting at a little over $11,000 this should make a nice entry-level vehicle for Toyota.
Toyota also announced the new RAV4, which, in line with current trends, is bigger than its predecessor. They also added the FJ Cruiser to their SUV line-up. This is a full sized SUV that looks a little like one of original Chevy Blazers or a Ford Bronco. I overheard two guys discussing this vehicle, one said, "do you think that Irene would drive that" and the other answered "No it's too Macho". This is an SUV on testosterone and is about as much use in an urban environment as a Burro.
Toyota is also expected to announce the new version of the Camry including a hybrid that will be built in Kentucky. Like many other companies they reserved this announcement for the Detroit Show.
On the way out of the South Hall I stopped once again by the Saab stand to try and get the skinny on their Biodiesel wagon but there was still nobody around so I went back to the entrance to the West Hall and the final event of the day, the presentation of the Green Car Journal Green Car of the Year Award. I arrived a few minutes early so to kill some time I walked over to the Yokohama Tire display. I had noticed they had a small racecar there as I passed by from time to time, but when I finally took a look at it I was surprised to find that it was an EV.
The Formula EV X-01 was presented by the Japanese Electric Vehicle Club. It uses an advanced series wound DC motor and Panasonic NiMH batteries giving it a maximum speed of 168 mph. It also rides on Yokohama Tires.
At the Green Car Journal stand a large vehicle, obviously an SUV, stood draped in a blue cover. Ron Cogan, Editor and Publisher of Green Car Journal talked for a few moments about the selection process and the five finalists, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Honda Accord Hybrid, and the Lexus 400h. The cover was pulled away to reveal the winner, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid. I think it says a good deal about how far we have to go with our personal transportation when a 33mph SUV, even one certified AT-PZEV by the California Air Resource Board, wins the green car of the year award.
Feeling a little let down I made my way back to my car. Passing the EV charging station I noticed that the three Nissan Altras had gone but in their place was a Honda EV+. I was surprised because I thought that all the Honda EVs had been returned to the manufacturer. I was glad to see that at least one remains on the road.
The LA Auto Show has been held at the same time as the Detroit Auto Show and this has prompted manufacturers to hold their big announcements for Detroit because that was the show that got the most international exposure. The 2007 LA Auto Show is going to be moved to November 2006 so we should see more announcements and lots more interesting vehicles at this show – I can hardly wait.
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