LA auto show 2009: Car4mh's reader blog

Published: 07 December 2009

LA auto show 2009 in summary: automotive heaven and hell in the City of Angels

Putting aside the excellent experience at this most media-friendly of motor shows, how is one to view the Los Angeles auto show in context of the local market and the global industry?

There was plenty of drama to be had at the LA auto show 2009, but it was below the glitzy surface. Much of the intrigue was generated by the ongoing saga of General Motors, with the abrupt departure last week of chief executive Fritz Henderson most visible in the hastily covered signs announcing the opening keynote speech would be by Bob Lutz instead. Combined with the cancellation of lunch at the Saab stand as the company's future hangs in the balance, it provided ample distraction for the press corps to consider – but the mainstream media's GM drama was all about Tiger Woods crashing his Cadillac Escalade, not Ed Whitacre taking the reigns.

How this impacts on GM's continued attempt to bring its downsized and refocused portfolio of brands back to health is another matter. Yet it is fair to say that the three remaining passenger-car divisions of GM now have competitive cars to offer, if American buyers have the funds and open minds to consider them after the years of sub-par products. But will the eagerly awaited Volt be the revolution in motoring Bob Lutz thinks it is? And is the Cruze really a game-changer, or just Chevrolet raising its game to mid-field from backmarker?

All quiet at Chrysler

It almost seems the opposite over at Chrysler: its stand staff valiantly attempted to attract eyes to the old-news Chrysler 300 and Dodge Challenger, to the additional sub-branding of Dodge Ram trucks and the Viper sports cars – it seemed like marketing was trying to paper over what amounts to a lack of compelling new vehicles. No wonder they were lacking in press attention. Hopefully new owner Fiat is preparing the sort of backs-to-the-wall product onslaught for the Detroit show which Chrysler has sadly had to rely on to drag itself back into life at least twice before in its history. If not, the future looks grim indeed for Mopar fans.

At Ford, there seems to be positive momentum, and the company is certainly making a bold entry into the US subcompact/economy car sector with its US-accented Fiesta range. Along with the Fusion Hybrid's class-leading efficiency, they had clearly embraced the eco-friendly and downsizing themes which were most prevalent in LA. Even if it meant that less highly evolved correspondents like myself had to dodge the hip kids blogging about their Fiestas to find the cave at the back of the stand where the SVT Raptor offroad racing truck lurked.

Honey, I shrunk the car...

Downsizing, whether in terms of engine capacity, vehicle sizes or carbon footprint was a common thread for many firms at LA in 2009. Beyond the Focus and Mazda 2, there was Hyundai dropping the V6 from its swoopy new Sonata range and going with direct-injection, turbocharging and hybrid drive for its four-cylinder engines, the VW empire continuing to push of TDI technology to a market unaccustomed to the economy benefits of the diesel engine, and BMW preaching its new sustainability gospel. Fisker was there pushing its hybrid dream, but troubled Tesla was not to be found, a surprise for its home state show, much less the apparent epicentre of eco-car consumption.

Downsizing in expectations was apparent too, given that more manufacturers are fighting over a significantly reduced US car market which shows little short-term sign of serious recovery. Unless of course you're Subaru or Hyundai, two brands that have prospered in hard times through dogmatic devotion to their core customers and having a compelling value proposition for budget-conscious buyers respectively.

LA: home of the new

Los Angeles looks to continue to be a testbed for alternative powertrains, with the Volt making its sales debut here in 2010, and pilot programmes to develop an electric vehicle charging infrastructure underway. The first steps towards a hydrogen infrastructure are also being made, although Honda's representative was unexpectedly conservative at hinting when viable fuelcell vehicles could be available to the average Joe.

But perhaps the biggest theme of all at the 2009 LA auto show was recycling – many of the vehicles being seen here had been released earlier, or are well-known to our readers in Europe and other markets.

In summary, Los Angeles 2009 showcased an industry still embroiled in drama but with encouraging signs of recovery; and an American car market in transition towards smaller, cleaner, more efficient vehicles. Whether this recovery continues to be apparent in the wintry environs of the Detroit show in January 2010 remains to be seen.