Los Angeles Auto Show 2011 Design Review

Last year we called the Los Angeles auto show the USA’s 'most eco-focused mainstream car exhibition' but the 2011 expo disappointed as of the 50 global unveils touted by the organisers, few of the important ones majored on eco. Not to say there weren’t a lot key green cars to view – the BMW i3 EV and i8 plug-in hybrid were two stunning examples making their US debuts – but genuine world debuts were dominated by bigger production cars like the Cadillac’s latest big saloon XTS and Ford and Honda’s new compact SUVs, rather than more forward-thinking concepts. Still, there were interesting new production cars to be found as Green Car Design uncovered, plus the fascinating annual LA Design Challenge competition was, as always, rich with content.

Production: Coda Sedan

Coda says:“Cause range envy: We built the longest range, fastest charging, self-regulating all-electric battery in its class.”

Spec sheet: The Coda Sedan boasts a 150-mile range with a sophisticated thermal management system and a two-hour quick charge that add 50 miles.

Coda is a bold new LA-based start-up car firm taking on the big carmakers with its US launch-ready full-electric sedan. With a 150-mile range it easily trumps the current circa 100-mile industry average of established carmakers like Nissan and Mitsubishi.  Its lithium ion phosphate battery only takes six hours to recharge for 150 miles’ worth of travel and powers the four-door, five-passenger sedan’s 134hp electric motor to 85mph. The big problem is the dowdy-looking small saloon – allegedly an old Mitsubishi may have provided the basis for its design – is still very expensive at around $30,000 (even after nearly $10,000 of state and government subsidies) and suffers from really weak interior quality complete with a poorly built gear selector that looks suspiciously close to Jaguar’s rising masterpiece. Why should eco-focused customers have to put up with bad design and poor quality at such high prices? The ‘range envy’ Coda suggests other drivers will experience may exist, but I’d argue its customers will suffer ‘design envy’ compared to almost any other EV on the road except perhaps the awful Reva G-Wiz (and at least that’s cheap).

Production: Honda Fit EV

Honda says: “The exterior dimensions of the Fit EV are identical to the petrol-powered Fit with the addition of a higher hip point. The car will launch in one exclusive colour, Reflection Blue Pearl.”

Spec sheet: A full-electric version of the well-known and well-established petrol-powered Honda Fit (or Jazz in Europe) minus the tailpipe emissions.

The Honda Fit EV will be no cheaper than the Coda EV when it launches in the US mid-2012. In fact, at $38,675 it could be more expensive depending on grants and subsidies but the big difference between the two is quality. Taking an already very well regarded package – the supermini offers outstanding levels of interior room, quality and flexibility and still regularly tops group tests for its class – the Fit EV packs a battery underfloor and an electric motor to offer zero tailpipe emissions between 76 miles in mixed use to 123 city-based miles before needing a re-charge. It also has a clever interactive keyfob that allows the user to monitor the car’s state of charge, and start or stop charging remotely without a smart phone or Internet connection. The petrol-powered version starts at less than half the price and offers a greater range and low emissions, but if you want to live the EV dream and have the money to pay for it, the Fit EV will certainly fit the bill in a way the compromised Coda never could. 

Concept: LA Design Challenge

LA Design Challenge says: “This year studios competed to design ‘Hollywood’s hottest new movie car’. Entries are judged based on factors including how the vehicle reflects its brand attributes relative to the movie plot, the level of imagination, the character development of the vehicle and the uniqueness of the story, car and character.”

Spec sheet: The annual virtual design competition this year pitted the skills of six advanced design teams worldwide: three from the West Coast of North America plus two of Mercedes’ German specialist studios and one from Subaru in Japan.

Following a few years where the judges’ design brief had been more focused on environmental themes, for 2011 a lighter theme was chosen: to create a Hollywood movie car of the future. The open brief led to many interesting interpretations from a 21st Century luxury carriage by Maybach focusing on a modern lounge-style car, to several Blade Runner-style sci-fi cars including Mercedes’ Silver Arrow racing car which proposed interesting omni-directional diagonal rubber sections on a roller for each hub-less wheel to allow movement and steering in all directions. Already used on some forklift trucks it’s not pie in the sky tech either – Google “Airtrax omni-directional wheels” and you’ll find a forklift truck doing some pretty cool tricks to give an idea of how the Silver Arrow concept could work. However, the winning design was from Smart for the second year running. Its 341 Parkour concept envisioned a future city car that could drive, fly, climb walls – via folding-in wheels and suction pads – and park on its end in congested city streets with the skill and flexibility of a parkour athlete. The animated short film produced to go with it is funny and lighthearted but highlights good green design themes, namely lightweight, compactness and frugality.

All entries are firmly conceptual for now – indeed most were not even made into a full-size model except for the Mercedes Silver Arrow (see picture) – but the ideas they show reveal not only potential design directions for their brands but also showcase possible adaptations of new green technology too.

Production: Ford Escape

Ford says: “We call our all-new Ford Escape the ‘Smarter Utility Vehicle’ because it offers the strengths that customers today really value – fuel economy, versatility and new technology” – Derrick Kuzak, group VP, global product development.

Spec sheet: New softer-shaped global production crossover that will replace both the current upright US Escape SUV and the radical European Kuga from late 2012.

The new Ford Escape could become a story of poorly managed expectations. The great-looking Vertrek concept at the 2010 Detroit show launched as the declared successor to the rather boxy but spacious US Escape and the rakish but smaller-booted European Kuga in order to come into line with Ford’s new one-car-for-all policy to save local production complexity and distribution costs for laudable economic, and to some extent eco reasons. Many were excited by that concept from a design perspective as only small changes for production were promised. Trouble is, the production unveil of the Escape at the LA show may still be spacious but the design feels too detached from the clear-surfaced dream of the Vertrek. Wheels have shrunk leaving small circles of rubber within big arches, exterior feature lines have become clumsy and less interesting and the roofline inflated and spoiled by rails. Fundamentally the new car has lost the wonderfully planted stance of the show model. New across-the-board fuel-efficient Eco boost engines should offset the gloom as should clever grille shutter technology to better aid airflow round the car. Maybe the design will still translate better out on the road with bigger wheels, but on initial first impressions at least, the new Escape seems like a shadow of the concept that heralded it.  

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