My girlfriends express surprise when I tell them that one of our favorite annual family outings each November is a visit to the Los Angeles Auto Show.
I know where they're coming from. For years, I dismissed this kind of event as a macho affair, where overgrown boys can play out their Hot Wheels fantasies by ogling scantily-clad models draped across shiny muscle cars.
I changed my mind half a dozen years ago, when we needed to replace my husband's aging SUV. An auto show is the perfect place to research a vehicle purchase, as you can scope out every model offered by every car company, without driving from lot to lot or enduring a hard sales pitch.
And while the show still is still mostly a bastion of men, powerful vehicles and pretty models, it's actually FUN -- even for women. This is why I keep going back, even when we're NOT actively shopping for a car.
Auto makers now know that women make 60% of all auto buying decisions, and they are designing their products accordingly. This was apparent during press preview days at the LA Auto Show, running now through November 28 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
New Cars With Female Appeal
Of the 50 new models that made either their US or world debuts in Los Angeles, many were designed with female drivers in mind... and guess what? They weren't all minivans!
That's not to say that minivans weren't on display. All three of the new vehicles unveiled by Nissan were targeted to women, beginning with a completely redesigned Quest, which the company described as "a celebration of family life – and a forum for innovative ideas designed to make the toughest job in the world, parenting, a little easier."
Highlights of the new Quest include one-touch power sliding doors, a second moonroof in the vehicle's back, and two features I'd kill for in my current car: a blind spot warning system and a "conversation mirror," to make it easier to see what's going on in those third row seats. The Quest also features tire pressure monitoring with something they've dubbed "Easy Fill Tire Alert," which lets you know with a honk of the horn when you've reached the desired pressure. (I hate to confess this, but I've never really mastered using a simple tire gauge, so this is a feature I think I'd really like.)
There was a lot of excitement surrounding the Ellure, a midsize sedan with a curvy silhouette. “It’s an ideal fit for the needs of its projected owners, women in their ‘30s and ‘40s with a sense of sophistication and rebellion,” said Nissan Chief Creative Officer Shiro Nakamura at its unveiling.
But the Ellure is a concept car; a vehicle we may never see in actual showrooms. More interesting to me was the Murano CrossCabriolet, which was designed with an eye on the preferences of women in their 40's. I don't know who had the idea of turning an SUV into a convertible, but I like it. It reminds me a little of the cars I've seen in really old movies; something Katharine Hepburn might take for a spin with Cary Grant.
Another curvy standout at the show was Hyundai's redesigned 2011 Elantra, with a conventional engine that can get up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway -- comparable to hybrid versions of the Ford Focus and GM's Chevy Cruze Eco.
This made the Elantra something of a standout at a show where most of the buzz was around hybrids, plug-ins and other alternate fuel vehicles.
Green Cars Go Mainstream at the LA Auto Show
The LA Auto Show producers announced that this year's event marked "the historic arrival of the modern electric car era." More than 50 electric, hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles were on display this year, and many of them are actually in production (like the Nissan LEAF, which will hit dealers' lots at the end of the year).
Greener vehicles were displayed by every carmaker from Audi to Volkswagen, plus some brand new companies promising to deliver shiny new all-electric models in 2011.
Some are cute little pod-cars, like the smart fortwo electric drive vehicle and Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, which is already in use in Japan. The model unveiled in Los Angeles is a bit larger for the North American market. The company plans to make it available in Los Angeles next year, with a nationwide launch early in 2012.
Mitsubishi’s really big news was a partnership with the consumer goods chain Best Buy and electronics firm Eaton to manufacture, sell and install rapid charging stations for the home and the public. Like many prospective buyers, the fear of running out of range keeps me from seriously considering an EV. Knowing I could refuel on the go would make it easier to go all-electric.
That’s why the first offering from Coda Automotive is so appealing: Its state-of-the art lithium battery will allow a driver 75-140 miles on a single charge.
On top of that, they've got a unique sales model: No lots or showrooms. You order your vehicle over the Internet.
The most attractive all-electric model on display was the Fisker Karma, a luxury sportscar that aims to be environmentally neutral. Their "Sustainable and Accountable Design™" directive means that many of the Karma's components are made of reclaimed, recycled and reusable materials.
Most interesting is the solar panel on its roof, which I assumed was used to help charge the car. Alas, solar technology is not there yet. The panel's purpose is to power an interior fan, which reduces the need to run the vehicle's air conditioning. It's still pretty cool -- and a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, this kind of innovation comes at a steep price: The Karma's base model is $87,900 (about twice the initial cost of the Coda).
One of the highlights of the LA Show is the award for Green Car of the Year, and the 2011 recipient is the Chevrolet Volt, which I had the opportunity to test drive.
GM describes Volt as an extended range electric vehicle (EREV), because it runs on both electricity and gas. When the battery runs low, a gas-powered generator kicks in, which extends the car's range until you can plug it in again (giving you hundreds more miles between charges).
The Volt I drove was running on pure battery power (about the first 40 miles after a charge). It was quiet, which was to be expected. But I was surprised at how easy it was to drive. Yes, a new owner will have a learning curve, especially if she's been out of the market for a while; I had to be talked through the buttons on the dashboard and items on the center console screen.
But the Volt drives like a dream, with excellent pickup and a nice, tight turning radius that makes handling easy. It's easy to see why Motor Trend also named the Volt is Car of the Year for 2011.
Visitors to the LA Auto Show will have the opportunity to test drive other green cars, including the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid and some GM models.
Flashy Technology Trend in New Cars
A few years back, Ford and Microsoft revolutionized hands-free vehicle electronics with their SYNC system, which integrates navigation, entertainment and bluetooth technology in one easy interface.
SYNC recently added an audible text messaging application, which gives drivers the hands-free ability to hear and respond to texts received on the road. As the mother of a teenager, this is technology I could use right now.
BMW was one of a handful of automakers (including Audi and Chrysler) touting "hot spot" features that allow passengers to connect to the Internet from a moving vehicle. BMW calls its integrated system ConnectedDrive, and its text-to-speech office function gives drivers the ability to actually hear their incoming email messages. I have a feeling in a few more years, this technology will become standard.
More Innovations To Come
One of the more interesting exhibitors I visited was Faurecia, manufacturers of interior and sustainable auto components. Their products can be found in some of the new vehicles debuted at the show: the Chrysler 200, Fiat 500, Saab 9-4X, Audi A-7 Sportback, BMW 5, Range Rover Evoque, smart fortwo, Volvo S60 and the Volkswagen EOS.
On display were projects that are still in the pipeline. One is a lightweight seat frame of recyclable materials that replaces the heavier metal and unsustainable foam forms of today. The result is a thinner and stronger seat that reduces the weight of the vehicle, while creating more interior space for the passengers.
My favorite is a fully customizable adjustable seat that gives you perfect fit using an app on your iPhone. You enter some information at the start of the app and use the phone to take a picture of yourself on the seat (you would need assistance from a friend or family member for that). The app then takes it from there, wirelessly setting the seat to the safest and most comfortable position for your body.
My current car has an adjustable power seat which I can seem to get it just right. And as I'm only 5'2", the minute I let anyone else drive my car -- my husband, a parking valet, a car wash attendant -- I have to start all over again. The memory function helps... but I make adjustments on my own from time to time and have a bad habit of remembering to update the memory (which is ironic, when you think about it).
So I found this feature extremely appealing; even more so when I learned that users will even be able to purchase and download new seat functions, like a shiatsu massage app for those long, back-killing commutes.
The Faurecia folks forecast that we'll begin seeing this system working on vehicles in 2014 at the earliest.
I can't wait.
by Donna Schwartz Mills
More from living