When the City of Santa Monica held its first AltCar Expo back in 2005, alternative-fueled vehicles were still a bit of an anomaly. There were only a handful of electric cars on the road, and none for sale. Hybrids were few and far between, and generally, only government fleets used vehicles that ran on compressed natural gas.
What a difference eight years make. Just about every car company offers a gas-electric hybrid of some sort, you can see EVs almost every day during your commute, and you can go to a Honda or Ford dealership to buy a CNG vehicle for yourself.
At this year’s AltCar, held as always at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, there was so much variety of what’s new. Not just the usual assortment of plug-in electric vehicles, but examples of other technologies too. One company showed off an assortment of cars and SUVs that can be converted to run on compressed natural gas. Their display included everything from a BMW X3 to a Chrysler 300.
Or maybe you’d like a pickup truck that can run on clean-burning propane. One firm was showing how a conversion can be done and where the infrastructure is for refueling, although I’m thinking that CNG is winning the gaseous fuel contest, with Ford Motor Company bringing a new F150 that runs on it. Once a major manufacturer goes full-steam with something, it’s not easy for a small player to get noticed with something else.
Speaking of other kinds of fuel, hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles were there for the looking and the test driving. You can actually lease a Mercedes-Benz or Honda fuel cell these days, though you have to qualify by living or working near a hydrogen fueling station. There are only six of those in all of Southern California.
Yes, test driving. That’s become a huge part of the event over the years, giving people a chance to experience these cars on a brief loop around city streets. This is especially helpful for people who have never experienced something like a pure electric car, but aren’t yet ready to visit a dealership. (Or in some cases, try cars that dealers don’t generally have on hand.)
This year Chevrolet was there in force with its Spark EV, a subcompact city car that runs strictly on battery power. (As opposed to the Chevy Volt, which has an engine to extend driving range.) The fun thing about the Spark EV is that it’s an absolute blast to drive, with its light weight and high-torque motor combining to make for really brisk acceleration.
The other popular car on the test drive loop was the Toyota RAV4 EV. This too is a pure electric plug-in vehicle, but it has the advantage of also being a compact SUV with a good amount of carrying capacity. It also shows that there is now a bit of diversity in electric car offerings.
Speaking of diversity, many different cars were making their West Coast debut at this year’s show. Cadillac brought its production ELR, which has a version of the Volt’s power system cloaked in a rakish coupe body. Yes, a Cadillac was at the AltCar Expo. Who would have imagined that eight years ago?
And BMW was showing off its new i3 plug-in electric car. We’ve seen earlier examples of i3 prototypes at the L.A. Auto Show in past years, but the car on display in Santa Monica is the one that’ll be in BMW showrooms very soon.
If you missed the AltCar Expo, don’t worry. Santa Monica will almost surely have another edition next year, probably in late September as always. And as always, it’ll be free to attend.
In the meantime if you want to see electric and other alternative fueled cars in person, you can actually just look around you on one of our crowded freeways. Unlike in 2005, the odds are good that you’ll see some out on the road.
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 Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz