The Auto Industry is Back

Jaguar C-X75 Concept Car

If there’s a way to get a feel for how the automobile industry is doing, the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show is pretty good at summing things up. First on the schedule for major shows in North America, the L.A. event has become a way to sort of take the temperature of the car business.

Last year — as well as two years ago — things were pretty glum in the Los Angeles Convention Center. Just about every auto brand had scaled things way back, saving precious marketing dollars and concept cars for other shows later in the season. Heck, poor Chrysler and GM didn’t even spring for floodlights in their respective display areas, with each company’s cars looking dim and dull under the standard-issue house lights.

At this year’s show, which runs through Sunday, things are very different. General Motors is reenergized after falling to the depths of bankruptcy, with glitzy displays highlighting their newest products including the revolutionary Volt electric car. (Their IPO came right in the middle of the press preview, and executives were riding high on that news as well as the three different awards bestowed upon the Volt that week.)

Chrysler had so much news to share that its news conference on the second press day ran long. Alongside their newly redesigned Dodge Charger and Durango, the cute Fiat 500 gets its own designer display. While sales of the diminutive Italian subcompact won’t overwhelm the sales charts by itself, the halo effect on Chrysler (now essentially owned by Fiat) will only be positive.

And while Ford weathered the turmoil of the industry better than the other two domestic brands (their display remained consistently good in 2008 and 2009), you can tell that they’re now ready to have a little fun. To show off its new Mustang Boss 302 (a name from the past that returns as a limited edition performance model), Ford has an example strapped into a rolling chassis dyno. Once an hour, the car is fired up and run through an in-place drag strip, with its roaring V8 engine being heard throughout the building.

Every brand is putting on a brave face, and it seems that every brand is showing off some form of electric car. In addition to the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf (both of which are on sale imminently), many mainstream and startup companies have some kind of electric vehicle on display. From the Honda Fit EV to a Volvo C30, all kinds of cars are sitting on the floor with mock electric cords hooked up to them.

Ever hear of a car called a Fisker? How about a Coda? Wheego? Those are all electric vehicles too, in various stages of development and presumably hitting the road soon. Auto companies know that “green” cars go over really well in Southern California.

My favorite car there? Well, that would have to be the Jaguar C-X75 concept. Be sure to get a good look at it if you go to the show, assuming you can see it through all the people who are sure to be stacked deep around it.

What Jaguar decided to envision was a high performance two-seater that would move around cleanly thanks to four electric motors, one at each wheel. At speeds above thirty miles per hour, two small gas turbines engage to recharge the batteries. Don’t write a deposit check just yet, as it’s still just a concept.

From the cars you can buy today to those that may never see production, this year’s L.A. Auto Show is all about the future. It’s also about forgetting a pretty bleak recent past.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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