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2005 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show

At the last several auto shows I've attended, I've seen increasing interest in hybrid-electric vehicles, with more and more models appearing, but it's been awhile since I've had any good news to report about battery-electric vehicles (EVs). That is starting to change, though it isn't the big automakers that are leading the way, as I saw when I went to the Los Angeles International Auto Show on 9 January 2005.

Toyota Highlander hybrid

Among the hybrids present were, of course, all the models now in production: the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, and the hybrid models of the Honda Civic, Ford Escape, and Chevy/GM pickups. The forthcoming hybrid Lexus RX 400h, which I had seen at a couple of recent auto shows, also put in an appearance, but this was the first time I had seen its Toyota counterpart, the hybrid Highlander. You may be able to see the small "Hybrid Synergy Drive" badge on the right of the liftgate, the same as the one on the Prius. The Toyota folks there thought it would become available around June 2005; pricing and specs aren't set yet, but they expected mid-30's for EPA highway fuel economy (compared with 25 for the regular front-wheel-drive V6 model) and a price premium of around $3000 to $4000. The drivetrain setup is the same as for the RX 400h, with a 3.3-liter V6 backed up by one (front-wheel-drive) or two (all-wheel-drive) electric motors; they didn't know if it would offer the same maximum output of 270 HP, but as with the RX 400h (and in contrast to the Ford Escape, the other hybrid SUV model out there) Toyota has mostly used the electric motors to boost performance rather than fuel economy.

Honda Accord hybrid

The hybrid version of the Honda Accord is also focused on performance, offering 255 HP from a 3.0-liter V6 plus "Integrated Motor Assist" mild hybrid components, in comparison with 240 HP from just the V6 in the standard sedan; however, it also boosts fuel economy significantly, increasing it from 21/30 EPA city/highway MPG to 29/37. (The stick-shift 4-cylinder Accord sedan gets 26/34.) A large part of that boost is due to another advanced technology, "Variable Cylinder Management" (VCM), which shuts down half of the six cylinders under light loads, say while cruising at a steady speed on the highway. The Accord Hybrid that I saw last year at the Anaheim Auto Show was closed up, but here the hood and doors were unlocked, and the car drew a lot of interested "door-slammers and tire-kickers."

Honda Odyssey

The non-hybrid Honda Odyssey minivan also uses VCM in its high-end trim levels, increasing EPA fuel economy with a 3.5-liter V6 from 19/25 to 20/28. In the background of this photo you can see "V6 - 3 = 28 mpg," referring to the shutdown of three of the cylinders of the V6.

Hyundai Tucson FCEV

There were also a number of prototype hydrogen vehicles, including the Hyundai Tucson FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) that is the successor to the Santa Fe FCEV that was the first fuel-cell vehicle I ever rode in. Honda had a bit of information about their FCX on a poster next to the information about their hybrid models and natural-gas-powered Civic GX, but they didn't have one on the floor. There was a Civic GX there, though, the only natural-gas vehicle at the whole show, as has been the case for a few years.

Hummer H2H

This is a vehicle I had overlooked at last year's Anaheim Auto Show; it's the Hummer H2H, an H2 model converted to burn hydrogen in its 6-liter V8. Because of the physical and chemical properties of hydrogen, it only puts out 180 HP, even with a supercharger, and because using hydrogen in an internal-combustion engine is a lot less efficient than using it in a fuel cell, its range is considerably shorter than the fuel-cell vehicles I've seen. It's a whole lot cheaper to build than a fuel-cell vehicle, though!

BMW H2R

That is the main reason that BMW and some other automakers have been putting more effort into hydrogen-powered internal-combustion-engine vehicles than into fuel-cell vehicles. BMW has built some 7-series cars that can run on either hydrogen or gasoline, much like a bi-fuel natural-gas or propane vehicle; they propose to put those into production within the next several years. The H2R that they brought to the L.A. Auto Show is a hydrogen-powered land-speed-record car with an engine based on the 7-series V-12, as you can perhaps see from the outline on the hood.

GEM booth in Kentia Hall

As I mentioned at the top, there have been some interesting developments in battery-electric vehicles, but not a lot from major automakers. The only one still making EVs is DaimlerChrysler, which owns Global Electric Motorcars (GEM); these are "Neighborhood Electric Vehicles" (NEVs) with top speeds of 25 MPH, which are legal in most states on streets with speed limits of 35 MPH or less. The 2005 GEM vehicles were relegated to an unmanned booth in Kentia Hall with the miscellaneous exhibitors (aftermarket parts makers, insurance companies, clubs, etc.); but at least they had 2005 models, unlike, say, the GM EV1.

Tango booth in Kentia Hall

A company with a very interesting new vehicle is Commuter Cars; the boring company name is quite misleading! And despite the small size of the Tango on display here (two seats in fore-and-aft configuration, narrower width than a touring motorcycle), it is not an NEV. Rather, it uses two electric motors, of the type often used singly in electric conversions of much larger vehicles, to achieve truly indecent levels of acceleration, and it uses the low center of gravity inherent in a battery pack to provide much better cornering than one would have a right to expect from such a narrow vehicle. They are just starting to sell these vehicles as mostly-assembled kits, to avoid having to certify the first few vehicles to Federal safety standards; once they get established, they plan to go into production with less-expensive, fully certified models (with less performance, but they still expect it to be surprisingly good). I first saw the Tango at the 2004 L.A. Auto Show, but their booth this year was much larger. I hope that's a good sign about their company's health and prospects!

Venturi Fétish in Concourse Hall

Small EV companies like Commuter Cars tend to be in Kentia Hall at this auto show, and of course the Honda EV Plus and GM EV1 were up in the main halls when they were in production; however, this year was the first time I saw an EV among the ultra-luxury marques (Bentley, Ferrari, Maserati...) in the Concourse Hall! Venturi is a maker of very-limited-production luxury vehicles, based in Monaco. They were sufficiently impressed with the performance of the AC Propulsion tzero at the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum that they decided to incorporate its drivetrain in an ultra-luxury electric sports car. The Venturi Fétish was unveiled at the 2004 Paris Motor Show; it has a zero-to-sixty MPH time of 4.5 seconds and a top speed of over 100 MPH, while with its lithium-ion batteries it has a range of over 200 miles. (I apologize to you readers, and to Venturi, for the ugly square reflections on the fenders and hood, from the overhead lights!)

The Fétish is way out of my price range, costing over $600,000; so why get excited about it on a consumer-oriented website like this? Well, because it is a harbinger of technology that AC Propulsion hopes to put into production soon: they are preparing to put their drivetrain and lithium-ion batteries into the Scion xA and xB sport compacts, starting this year. Until just a year or two ago, AC Propulsion was adamant that the only battery type that made commercial sense was the heavy but relatively cheap lead-acid kind; and they made a lead-acid-powered tzero sports car that could skin a Lamborghini in a drag race and still go over 100 miles on a charge, so they had some real-world experience to back up the assertion. However, cell-phone and laptop-computer makers have made great strides in the capacity, durability, and cost of lithium-ion batteries over the last few years, and recently AC Propulsion decided that they had improved to the point that these batteries, much lighter than lead-acids, could be put into a reasonably-priced vehicle for the first time (the only vehicle from a major automaker that used them was the Nissan Altra, which was made in extremely small numbers and only leased, never sold). They plan to build two models, one with a larger battery pack for more range; they say on their FAQ page that the base model will outperform the late Toyota RAV4-EV but sell for about the same price, without the internal subsidies that Toyota was able to give their vehicle to hold down its price. AC Propulsion has some serious street cred among EV companies, having been an innovator since their involvement in the earliest stages (1989) of the GM Impact prototype that led to the EV1; I hope to put one of their xBs in my garage when I retire my 1993 natural-gas van!

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new 16 February 2005