Doing the '04 L.A. Auto Show
By Noel Adams
The recent rain had left the air crystal clear and as I drove through light traffic into downtown LA. I was afforded a stunning view of the San Bernardino Mountains, a sight normally shrouded in smog. This Sunday I was heading for the Los Angeles Convention Center and the 2004 Los Angeles Auto Show.
I was looking for signs of alternative fuel vehicles and for a new crop of cars that would help keep that gorgeous view of the mountains. This years show would have few surprises and was defined as much by what wasn’t show as by what was.
I arrived early because of the light traffic so I was one of the first people through the doors when the show opened at 9am. I made my way to the North Hall and as I walked through the door the first thing that met my sight was the line-up of Honda’s green vehicles.
First in the line-up was the Honda FCX Fuel Cell vehicle. Honda has some Fuel Cell vehicles in service with the city of LA and is planning to put more on the roads later this year. The car is basically one of their Honda EV+ vehicles updated to run on Hydrogen Fuel Cells.
Next to the FCX was a Honda Insight hybrid. The Insight was the first hybrid offered for sale by one of the major automobile manufacturers in modern times. This car has an EPA mileage estimate of 57 mpg in the city and 58 mpg on the highway produces very low emissions.
Beside the Insight was a Civic hybrid. This vehicle features Honda’s integrated motor assist and has an EPA fuel consumption estimate of 47 mpg in the city and 48 mpg on the highway. This car looks just like any other Honda Civic but comes with super ultra low emissions when using low sulfur gasoline.
Last in Honda’s green line-up was the Civic GX that runs on Compressed Natural Gas. Like the Civic Hybrid, externally this looks just like any other Civic. The EPA estimates fuel consumption to be 30 mpgge (miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent) in the city and 34 mpgge in the city. I heard one person say “the mileage sucks” as he looked at the sticker, but the mileage is not bad compared to most cars on the road today, and the ability to drive alone in the carpool lane makes the CNG vehicle a good option for those long Southern California commutes.
Honda has made a decision to launch the Hybrid version of the Accord at the Detroit Auto show and it was conspicuous by its absence here in LA. The Detroit Auto Show overlaps with LA and gets more worldwide coverage but since Honda will sell more hybrid Accords in California than anywhere else except perhaps Japan it would have been smart to have one on display here.
I left the Honda exhibit and moved on the Dodge stand. Dodge, as expected, where highlighting their big trucks and SUVs equipped with Hemi engines. They also introduced the Dodge Magnum concept vehicle, a muscle car that comes with a Hemi engine producing 430hp and no doubt has a huge thirst for gas, not to mention disgourging tons of CO2.
I much preferred the Kahuna Concept minivan. This vehicle combined a modern stance, with the wheels at each corner of the vehicle, and the retro look of a woody. It was complete with surfboards on the roof rack and looked just the ticket for taking the family for a day at the beach.
Mercedes was next door to Dodge and buried in their regular collection of sedans, sports cars and SUVs was a mock-up of their F Cell fuel cell vehicle. This vehicle was shown as a cutaway so that you could see where the fuel cells, hydrogen tanks and assorted pumps were placed under the floor.
The next stand I visited was the Maybach display. These ultra luxury vehicles are built to go after the same market as Rolls Royce and Bentley and are definitely not on the environmentalists shopping list.
I did overhear what must be the quote of the year for the LA Auto Show. A woman who was looking at the $305,000 price tag on the Maybach turned to here companion and said, “For that price I would want a Hummer” – only in LA!
Still laughing I moved on to the Nissan exhibit. Nissan has been rumored to be working on a hybrid version of its popular Altima but there wasn’t one to be found, not even as a concept vehicle.
Nissan was the first automaker to offer a PZEV (Partial emissions vehicle) in California.
Their Sentra model is still PZEV but like many of the automakers at the LA Auto Show they appeared to be keeping quiet about it. Perhaps they think that telling everyone that there car produces less than 90% of the smog causing emissions of other cars will be a big turn-off to LA Drivers.
Almost half the North hall was dedicated to the various Ford divisions including Lincoln with its collection of full sized and mid sized SUVs and Land Rover that makes nothing else but SUVs.
I did find one interesting thing in the Mercury display. They had a Grand Marquis with a keyless entry system that looked exactly like the one that was used on the EV1. I thought, “Hey GM, here's another use for the EV1 technology”, and it wasn’t until I reviewed my notes I realized that this was a Ford not GM. I can’t help but wonder if Ford bought the parts from one of GMs subsidiaries.
I really hoped to see the Escape Hybrid in the Ford exhibit. Since Ford first introduced this vehicle at the 2000 LA Auto show they have been hinting that they will begin selling it soon. There are rumors that they already have a number of these vehicles in fleet tests and I know a lot of people who are looking for a hybrid SUV and this would fit the bill.
Ford however did not have the Escape at the LA Auto Show. I asked one of their representatives about it and he said that he didn’t know for sure but thought that it would be out in the fall. It seems incomprehensible to me that they would not show such an advanced vehicle here in LA if they intended it to go on sale for the 2005 model year.
They did have the Ford Focus on display but didn’t have the PZEV designation on them as they had when they introduced them here in LA last year. The Ford Focus is a PZEV when run on low sulfur gas but like Nissan, Ford chose not to advertise this. v Leaving the North Hall I made my way through the Concourse. This is where you get the exotic cars like Ferrari, Maserati, Bentley and Lotus.
The most notable entry on the concourse was the return to the US market of Morgan who launched their Aero 8 roadster. The old Rover power plant has been replaced with a BMW V8 to meet California emissions requirements. It gives the car a top speed of 150mph, and 0 – 60 in under 5 seconds. This is not an environmentally friendly vehicle, but for those who long for the roadster of the past, it is a drive by the seat of your pants thrill ride.
My next destination was the South Hall where I encountered Toyota.
Central to the Toyota display was the 2004 Prius with the hybrid synergy drive. This car is a second-generation hybrid and boasts and extraordinary EPA estimate of 60mpg in the City and 51 mpg on the highway. I heard quite a number of people ask if these numbers were switched but on the EPA test course the Prius did achieve higher mileage in the city test than the highway test.
Toyota had a silver Prius and a blue Prius on display, and a cutaway that showed the hybrid power train including the controller and the traction battery. Flashing colored lights showed the various directions of power flow between the electric motor/generator and the traction battery.
I had also heard rumors that Toyota would announce a hybrid version of the Highlander SUV and a Lexus Hybrid. It appears that like Honda, Toyota has chose to announce these vehicles at the Detroit auto show and not the LA Auto show. I searched both the Toyota and Lexus stands but couldn’t find either hybrid.
I moved on to the Chrysler exhibit looking for the GEM. I was to be disappointed again. This is the first time for several years that Chrysler hasn’t include the GEM in its line-up. In fact I didn’t see a single NEV exhibited at this years LA Auto Show.
Arriving at the GM stand I cringed as I walked between huge Hummers including the H1 and the H2, but once I got passed those I found myself looking at their Hywire Fuel Cell vehicle. The Hywire was roped off so you couldn’t get too near it but there was a young guy dressed in a lab coat talking about the car. He was telling us that hydrogen and air were mixed in the fuel cell and produced only electricity, water and heat. He went on to describe the way that things like brakes and steering are controlled by wire with no physical connections from the controls.
For those of us who are mad at GM for confiscating EV1s from their leasers and the recent revelation that most of these vehicles had been crushed, it was good to see that the by-wire technology originally developed for the EV1 was not going to waste.
GM were featuring more cars this year than in recent years. The introduction of the Aveo by Chevrolet gave GM a vehicle with and EPA estimated 26mph in the City and 34 mpg on the highway. This is quite good mileage for a GM car and will give them a better chance of meeting CAFE standards. The Aveo comes in two door, four door and hatchback configurations with prices starting at just under $10,000.
I still didn’t see any PZEV vehicles from GM and they did have the Pontiac GTO to bring down their fuel economy but the Aveo is a step in the right direction. However, as I left the GM area I couldn’t help but notice the gargantuan Cadillac V16 concept vehicle. The car has a long hood and is powered by what looks like two V8 motors attached end to end. The gas mileage will, I am sure, be very poor.
From the South Hall I moved down into the Kentia hall where the accessory manufactures and specialty cars can be found. I wandered around the exhibits until I came to the back of the hall where I found Commuter Cars Corporation displaying its Tango electric vehicle.
Since the big automobile manufacturers have abandoned the EV business and the Automobile magazines have declared the electric vehicle dead, we have seen a resurgence of small start-up companies building EVs. The Commuter Cars Corporation is one of these start-ups.
I introduced myself to Rich Woodbury, the head of the company, who opened up the rope around his vehicle and invited me in to get a close up view of this sleek two-seat commuter car. The Tango is designed to be narrow with the passenger sitting behind the driver. This means that it is small enough to fit two vehicles side by side in a standard lane, or to fit neatly into a motorcycle parking space.
Sitting in the Tango I notice that there is good forward vision and the vehicle, while narrow, is quite large enough for a portly sole like me to sit comfortably. The rear seat is even more ingenious. Slide the front seat all the way forward and the passenger can step in the vehicle and swing into the rear seat. The passenger keeps their feet in channels at each side of the car and the front seat slides back between their knees to leave both driver and passenger with plenty of room.
The Tango has a top speed of over 100 mph and can go 0-60 in just over 4 seconds so it has the performance of a pocket rocket. Rick has been testing a variety of batteries including Optima, Exide and Hawker and is able to get about 80 miles per charge. There is a battery management system included to avoid killing the batteries by discharging them too deeply. The company is also in talks with AC Propulsion to review their Lithium battery packs.
The Commuter Cars Corporation is taking deposits of $10,000 for the first group of Tango’s off the production line. They will be shipped as a kit, which will be very easy to assemble in about 8 hours. The price is $85,000.
Across the isle from the Tango were a group of electric scooters. There was an Oxygen “Vespa style” scooter (formally known as the Lepton) built in Italy, an eGo II scooter and a Go Motorboard kick style scooter. These scooters, it turned out, were being exhibited by my old friend Dave Cutter from Pliedies Enterprises.
The Oxygen scooter has a lead acid battery that gives it a top speed of 28mph and a range of about 15 miles. They also offer a NiZn version that has the same top speed but gives increased range. It registers as a moped in most states.
The ego has a top speed of 20 mph and a range of 20 miles while the Go Motorboard has a top speed of 16 mph and about 5 miles or range.
Dave’s electric scooters were sandwiched between a Hummer and a full sized Toyota Truck. It turned out that Dave was sharing a space with Tai Robinson.
Tai wasn’t available when I was there but I had a long chat with his father. The Green Hummer turned out to be a standard Diesel Hummer H2 that he had converted to Bio Diesel.
The Toyota Truck has also been converted to run on either Hydrogen or natural Gas and could even be run on Gasoline in a pinch. Two large 3600psi tanks had been installed in the truck bed to store the hydrogen or natural gas and additional fuel injectors had been installed in the motor for when the vehicle was run on gas instead of gasoline. This was the vehicle that Dennis Weaver had driven across America and had only needed to use one tank of gasoline while the rest of the trip was on Hydrogen or Natural Gas.
They also had a second Hummer H2 that they were in the process of converting to run on Hydrogen but the conversion wasn’t quite finished.
The 2004 LA Auto Show was quite a lot of fun. I was disappointed to see that nearly all the big manufacturers had chosen to launch their new vehicles at the Detroit Auto Show instead of here in LA. I would have liked to see the new Hybrids on show here. On the other hand it was encouraging to see small start-up companies like The Commuter Cars Corporation getting ready to market their vehicles to the public. I can’t wait until next year when the new hybrids are on display and perhaps we will see more start-ups bringing the EV back to life.
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