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Phil McNamara's 2010 LA Auto Show report

Thu, 18 Nov 2010

Optimism. California was built on it, and the first press day of the Los Angeles auto show was mired in thick, gloopy, ‘we’re going to save/conquer the world’ with cars rhetoric.

Mercedes saw no irony whatsoever in announcing 200 deliveries of the zero emission hydrogen fuel cell B-class, then without missing a beat unveiling the 550hp CLS63 AMG, with huge increases in power and torque. Some justification followed in that fuel consumption has also improved – to 24mpg. Still found myself itching to drive one, though.

Nissan, whose slogan was ‘innovation for all’, displayed the same schizophrenia. US boss Carlos Tavares listed breakthroughs as diverse as ‘squeezing 500bhp from a V6, to something as life changing as never buying another gallon of gasoline’. From GT-R to Leaf in the same sentence. I guess the message is that car enthusiasts can have their cake and eat it, which is pretty heartening in a self-centred kind of way.

If Nissan’s electric car evangelism is a risk, Ford is also stepping from its F150 comfort zone with an attempt to hook America on C-segment hatchbacks. The North American production Focus had its premiere in saloon and hatchback bodystyles. That’s arguably an easy sell compared with the star of the Cadillac stand: a Mini-sized monobox called Urban Luxury Concept.

‘We’re looking at small premium for Buick and Caddy,’ said the ULC’s designer, the appropriately-named Niki Smart. The project has been underway for a couple of years, but perhaps the Audi A1 and forthcoming front-wheel drive baby BMW spurred GM into softening up customers for a tiddly Caddy. Smart accepts it’s a tough sell, that a three-cylinder hybrid supermini does not conform with the long-bonnet limousine traditions of American luxury. But the tall roof and theatre seating frees up enough space to ensure the small Caddy might not be too big a compromise.

The most significant styling statement was Subaru’s Impreza concept. The current Impreza will be replaced in 2011, two years earlier than the seven-year life cycle norm, an admission that it’s underachieving. Designer Osamu Namba admitted Subaru has been wildly inconsistent with the Impreza for a decade, with knee jerk facelifts and bizarre bodystyle fluctuations. I’m not sure this concept is salvation – the heavy-handed wheelarches and the proliferation of Bangle BMW creases jar – but it’s a lot more striking than any Subaru since the B9 Tribeca. And this is striking for the right reasons.

Subaru is heading for record sales and record profits in 2010, you may be surprised to hear considering its diminished brand status in Europe. You won’t be surprised that Kia is also ripping up the record book, and heading for its best year ever. A string of youthful, polished executives reeled off the company’s achievements, some a little tenuous, such as Kia being ranked eighth on the list of car brands bought by the Generation Y. I think that means 30-somethings are buying Korean.

Kia’s breaking news was the Optima hybrid, and it’s a sign of the company’s confidence that it namechecked the Audi A4 as a potential rival. The handsome saloon is festooned with equipment, offers decent performance and economy from its 200-274hp four-cylinder petrols, and gets a 10-year warranty Stateside too. It arrives in the UK next summer.

Optima is grounds for optimism at Kia. And perhaps a rising tide is floating all boats in North America right now. The likes of Kia and Subaru are certainly grabbing market share. But for every winner, there has to be a loser. Are we simply witnessing a passing of the torch from the Detroit old guard to US upstarts like Volkswagen and Kia?


By Phil McNamara