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Infinity Q30 concept car.

2013 LA Auto Show Wrap Up

Concluding chapter of Noel Adam's annual review.

By Noel Adams

There was a light rain falling as I set off for my second day at the LA Auto show. This turned the I10 freeway into a virtual parking lot. Fortunately I had allowed extra time so I was able to grab some breakfast and still make it to the first press conference.

Each year Green Car Journal gives out the Green Car of the Year award on the last press day of the show. Over the years the award has often gone to diesel models and this year’s lineup included two, The Audi A6 TDI and the BMW 328D. Other cars in the running were the Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, and Honda Accord. It is interesting that there were no electric cars included in this year’s list even though both the Chevy Sprint and Fiat 500e went on sale as did a new version of the Smart Electric Drive.

The idea presented by Green Car Journal is to make the award to cars with significant sales volume assessing the impact the model will have overall, not the impact of the individual vehicle. The car model also has to have gone on sale in the current year. This year’s green car of the year came as a surprise with the award went to the Honda Accord. Now the Honda Accord has a variety of different power trains including a 4 cylinder, 6 cylinder, hybrid and plug-in hybrid, and is one of the most popular mid-sized sedans sold in the USA so probably not a bad choice given their selection criteria.

Honda Accord Plug-In

I hurried over to the south hall for the Infinity press conference. It was unusual that while they were showing the Q30 Concept for the first time in North America they did not do the typical unveiling of the car but instead had it sitting on the stand in full view. The Q30 concept is a 4 door hatchback that is going to be a good indication of how the new Q30 compact sedan will look when it is released in 2015. They gave no real specs for the car which looked to me more like a compact crossover than a sedan.

What was more interesting were the remarks made by Michael Bartsch who was named Vice President, Infinity America, just seven weeks ago. He said that Infinity had recently been made an independent subsidiary of Nissan which meant they could now pursue an “Infinity business model” which includes increasing the number of product offerings by 60% and doubling the number of engine options. He also mentioned how the Q50 would achieve sales of over 4,000 units in November. The lineup for the Q50 includes several versions that use the Infinity Direct Response Hybrid system. They are trying to appeal to a younger buyer and the upcoming Q30 is designed with this goal in mind.

The last press conference I was planning to attend was VIA Motors down in the South Hall lobby and I was able to get a seat with a good view of the stage.

The press conference was given mostly by Bob Lutz who is an icon in the auto industry and before he retired from GM was one of the people behind the Chevy Volt. Via Motors were launching their VTRUX Extended Cab which is basically a Chevy Silverado which they turn into an extended range electric truck.

“It makes fundamental economic sense” said Bob Lutz who went on to say that it was the “most fundamental change in the last three generations; the electrification of the automobile.” He told the audience that VIA motors cars can show fleet operators that they can save money over the life of the truck by buying their extended range version. “Fleets are not going to pay a penalty for being green” he said. He added that “from the environmental standpoint it made sense to focus on fleet vehicles that get 11 to 12 mpg in stop and go city traffic”.

The Via VTRUX extended cab is a standard Chevy Silverado that is shipped from the GM plant in Mexico to the VIA motors plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico where parts like the transmission are removed and the electric drive train and batteries are added. The truck offers about 40 miles of electric only range after which it switches on the gas engine as a range extender allowing the truck to go up to 400 miles before the fuel tank needs refilling.

Another interesting thing is the ability to export up to 15Kw of power which is enough to run power tools; or even an ark welder; or to power a home during a blackout. There is also an optional bed cover that includes the latest in solar cells that, they claim, are enough to give the car an additional 5-10 miles of range if left parked in the sun all day.

Via Plug-In Pickup

VIA motors are still waiting on final approval from the EPA before the trucks can go on sale but production has already begun. While they were showing the VTRUX Extended Cab at the auto show their first product will be the VTRUX Van. They will be able to ramp up to about 20,000 vehicles per year and will be targeting fleet sales here in the US.

My next stop was back at the BMW stand where I had an appointment to talk with Jose Guerrero, Product Manager and US Planning and Product Strategy for BMW I North America. We found a seat near the i3 and my first question was when will the car be available?

Jose told me that the rollout will begin in May of next year. He added that since the car is built in Leipzig, Germany the cars will begin arriving on the East Coast in early May and will take about 4 weeks to get to dealerships on the West Coast. I asked if they were going to roll out to just certain states and he told me that they planned on selling the cars through all dealerships nationwide from the start.

My next question of course was “How much?” Jose told me that the price would start at $41,350 plus tax and license but before Federal and State incentives. Here in California that means a $7,500 credit against Federal taxes and a $2,500 rebate from the State bringing the base price down to $31,350.

I asked about charging and he told me that the car would use the standard J1772 charger which took about 3 hours for a full charge and gave a range of up to 100 miles. This was in part due to the light weight of the vehicle, just 2,700lbs, made possible by the extensive use of carbon fiber instead of steel. Jose told me that the car would also come with a high speed charger option which could charge the batteries to 80% in 20 minutes. I asked what they used for this and he told me that they would use the new standard J1772 DC fast charge connector, the same one that is used on the Chevy Spark EV. I asked about availability of these chargers and he told me “This is a problem right now but we are working on it”.

I asked about the range extender option and he told me that this would add a small 2 cylinder engine which would be fitted in the back of the car and a 2.4 gallon gas tank that would be fitted in the front of the car to help keep the weight balanced front to rear. I asked if the range extender option was charge depleting or charge sustaining. Charge depleting means that the engine needs to be run from the start of the trip and just augments the battery power to extend its range but once the battery is depleted the car will need to stop for a charge. Charge sustaining means the generator produces enough power to keep the car running and so the car can be driven using the range extended as long as there is gas in the tank. I was happy to hear that the i3’s range extender is charge sustaining.

I switched my questions to the i8 and once again asked about availability. Jose told me that they expect the i8 to actually roll out at the same time as the i3 although this wasn’t totally settled yet. He went on to say that the i8 will start at a base price of $135,700.

Jose then told me that the i8 is a plug-in hybrid that has a 3cylinder 231hp gas engine combined with a 131hp electric motor. The car has an all-electric range of about 27 miles and will run in electric mode at speeds up to 75mph which is about the actual speed of freeways here in California. Its 0-60 time is a little under 4.4 seconds in hybrid mode but slower when accelerating in electric only mode. The car tops out at 155mph.

It was almost time for my test drive of the i3 so I said goodbye to Jose and hurried over to the Gilbert Lindsey Plaza to register for the ride and drive. I already had a drive slot reserved for 11:30am but when I got to the BMW area there was no sign of the i3. I asked one of the BMW employees about it and he pointed me to an area across the street where BMW had set up their i3 experience. I rushed over and got there just in time to take my test drive.

I was handed a map of the 3 mile route around downtown LA and shown how to start the car. Like all the electric cars I have driven recently the BMW has a Start button that is pressed to get the car booted up. Then it is just a matter of switching into drive and hitting the accelerator. One thing of note was the suicide doors that allow for very easy access into the rear seats of the car where I stowed my camera bag.

The car drove quite nicely with lots of pep in comfort mode. The regenerative braking is quite harsh and the first time I lifted my foot off the accelerator I found myself slowing much faster that I intended. At the first stop light a lady in the car next to me signaled for me to roll down my window then asked if the car would be going on sale. I was able to tell her that the car would be in dealerships toward the end of May.

I soon learned that if I was careful how much I lifted my foot of the accelerator I could control the rate of slowing without touching the brakes. After a little practice I found that I could even bring the car to a complete stop without even touching the brake pedal until I needed to hold the car at a stop light. It should be noted that the brake lights do come on when the car begins regenerative braking.

I found the driving experience to be quite relaxing even in heavy traffic and really enjoyed the ride. While being allowed to drive the car on your own instead of with a company employee riding shotgun has its advantages, it does allow unfamiliarity with the car to show. For me there were two issues that I faced. The first was that while looking for a nice radio station I inadvertently turned on the NAV system which attempted to route me via the shortest route back to the convention center. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off so I just ignored the voice commands. The other was that I turned on the seat warmers and couldn’t figure out how to turn them off. Both of these were related to unfamiliarity with the car and nothing that five minutes with the owner’s manual wouldn’t fix.

I also had an issue with the turn signals. When signaling a turn the indicator arm would move back to center. On completing the turn the turn signal would cancel as expected. However, when signaling a lane change the turn signal didn’t reset after moving to the new lane and I found I had to fiddle with the indicator arm to reset the turn signal. Again this is something that would just take a small time to get used to.

On the whole the car handled well. In comfort mode the car had loads of zip for lane changes and a nice tight turning circle to be able to get in and out of those tight gaps in traffic. In eco mode the car had more than enough zip for most traffic situations and I expect that the majority of drivers will stick with eco mode for in town driving.

I think that BMW have created an excellent EV with the i3 and given the relatively low entry cost for a BMW I expect it to sell well here in California.

After my test drive was done I had a chance to sit down with Oliver Walter who is Head of BMW I3 Product Management. He started out by telling me about some of the features that make the i3 unique. For a start the car is built around a carbon fiber frame that gives it both high strength and low weight. This is enhanced by the use of plastic body panels that make the car what Oliver called “City Proof” meaning that the car resists the usual dings and scratches that are the norm in crowded city parking lots.

He told me that the reduction in weight made it possible to go from the 22KWhr pack used in the Active-E to an 18.8KWhr in the i3 and still get about the same range.

The i3 has just gone on sale in Europe and I asked Oliver about which countries it was currently being sold in and he told me that they had started selling the car across all of Europe from the beginning just as they intended to start selling it in all states here in the US.

To show how serious they are he told me that the i3 experience center would be offering test drives to the public in conjunction with the LA Auto Show and that they had more than fifty cars available for test rides over the next week.

I asked him about the choice of suicide doors on the car had Oliver told me that they prefer to call them coach doors. The coach doors make access into the rear of the car very easy especially when you have to place a child back there. He told me that BMW expects that the i3 will become the car of choice when running kids to their soccer game or ballet class and the coach doors make the car more child-friendly.

Volkswagen

I went back to the Gilbert Lindsey Plaza to see if I could sign up to test drive some of the other plug-in cars that they had but all the ones I was interested in driving were fully booked for the rest of the day. I went back to the South hall and returned to the VW stand to get a picture of the e-Golf and while there I had a chance to talk to one of the VW employees.

He told me that the 24.2KWhr battery pack is located underneath the car so that they did not have to reduce luggage space to accommodate the pack. The e-Golf gets a range of up to 90 miles and will have a top speed of 87 mph. I asked him about fast charging and he told me that they will offer a DC Fast Charge option that would charge the car to 80% in 30 minutes but he didn’t really have an answer on what type of system they would be using. He also told me that the onboard charger would charge up to 7.2KW when connected to a level 2 charger which would make for a very fast charge.

On my way back to my car I decided to stop at Kentia Hall where the aftermarket sellers set out their wares. Via Motors had a stand next to the main entrance and they had one of their vans on display along with a couple of trucks.

Kentia Hall is sometimes the home of small start-up companies that are in the process of bringing electric cars to market. In the past I have seen companies like Commuter Cars and Wheego display there. This year though I couldn’t find any electric cars with the exception of the electric Smart car that has been part of the AAA display for the last few years.

I set off back home after a very mixed auto show. I saw companies that are sliding backwards into producing SUVs and high performance versions of existing models. On the other hand there were a good number of plug-in cars that are destined for the US market next year. It is nice to see plug-in cars coming from the German carmakers and we mustn’t forget VIA motors. As I told a fellow journalist “I don’t know if VIA motors will succeed but if Bob Lutz is backing the company you have to take notice”.

Times Article Viewed: 5735
Published: 17-Dec-2013

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