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green cars at la auto show

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    AUTOMOBILES

    Green cars the main draw at L.A. Auto show
    Hummers roll aside as humming electric cars steal their thunder
    By Bob Keefe

    WEST COAST BUREAU


    Friday, November 21, 2008

    LOS ANGELES — Falling fuel prices and the worst auto market in recent history haven't stopped the world's carmakers from driving toward a cleaner, greener future.

    At the L.A. Auto Show, which opens to the public today after two days of press previews, gas-guzzling SUVs have been replaced by boxy little fuel-sippers, electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles, and a whole host of new hybrids.

    "It's all totally different," said Steve Keyes, spokesman for Volkswagen of America, which won the auto show's "Green Car of the Year" award Thursday for its 2009 "clean diesel" VW Jetta TDI. The $22,000 Jetta gets an estimated 41 miles per gallon on the highway and has lower emissions than most cars.

    At a time when U.S. carmakers can't find enough buyers, VW claims it can build Jetta TDIs fast enough to meet demand.

    Also on Thursday, Smart USA, a tiny division of Germany's Daimler AG and Michigan's Penske Automotive Group, unveiled its latest U.S. entry, the three-cylinder, $18,000 Smart Brabus that also boasts 41 mpg on the highway.

    "A real revolution is happening in the automotive world," said Roger Penske, the former race driver turned car dealer who is chairman of Smart USA. "Today, environmental performance attributes must be considered in the way we design and market every vehicle for the future."

    Just slightly bigger than the Brabus, BMW's new all-electric Mini-E also is turning heads at the auto show.

    Mini plans to start a nationwide test of the car early next year. Already, more than 20,000 Mini enthusiasts have registered to lease one of the 450 Mini-Es at a hefty price of $850 per month, said Vincent Kung, product manager for Mini USA.

    The Mini-E came out of a special BMW group called Project i, which the German automaker launched about a year ago amid high gas prices and growing environmental problems.

    "The Project i group is basically looking at any and every alternative to (traditional gasoline) cars," Kung said. "It is quite literally driving our future. And you can bet every manufacturer has something similar, even if they aren't saying it."

    In a keynote speech opening the auto show's press days, Nissan-Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn announced plans to begin selling an electric car in Oregon in 2010 and to roll it out nationwide by 2012.

    Other carmakers, including Kia Motors and Mitsubishi Motors, also unveiled prototype electric vehicles.

    Even the struggling U.S. automakers — whose pleas for more financial aid were rebuffed Thursday by Congress until they come up with a plan to make themselves competitive — are taking pains to embrace fuel efficiency and alternative fuels. Some examples:

    \• General Motors is displaying a GMC Sierra hybrid pickup it plans to introduce next year, as well as an ethanol-powered version of its Hummer. GM's big draw, however, is the latest version of its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid, which is expected to hit the market in 2010 or 2011.

    \• Ford is showing off a new Mustang muscle car, but it is also displaying its 2010 Fusion Hybrid sedan that boasts 39 mpg in the city.

    \• Troubled Chrysler is displaying an electric-powered prototype of its popular Town and Country minivan that it hopes to get to market in 2010 or 2011.

    Chrysler's current electric vehicle, the golf-cart-like GEM that tops out at 25 mph, is having its best year ever, said spokeswoman Joan Michelson, who declined to give sales figures. Chrysler launched its GEM, or Global Electric Motorcars division, in 1998. Its little cars range in price from $7,400 to $13,000.

    "You don't need your SUV to go to the supermarket any more," Michelson said. "If we're going to combat global warming, high gas prices and everything else, we need to change not only what we drive, but how we drive."
 
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