cars: progress in eco, not in design

I went to the local auto show, a low-key affair compared with the Los Angeles one. Mercedes-Benz, smart USA, and Suzuki skipped it altogether, and there were no new reveals.

Fuel efficiency

Toyota will be on a fuel efficiency warpath throughout 2012. The Prius v small van (44 city / 40 highway mpg) is already showing up at dealers, next the Camry Hybrid (43/39) retakes the “midsize car with a trunk” (for people who don’t like the Prius look) crown from the Ford Fusion Hybrid, next the Prius Plug-in Hybrid (100+ mpg if you drive less than ~20 miles, around 60 mpg if you drive further), and then the Prius c compact car (?? 53 mpg?). The last one will finally reapply the laws of physics to gasoline-powered cars; since Honda killed the original Insight 5 years ago, you can buy a smaller car than the Prius, but in exchange for less room and a less powerful engine you get significantly worse mpg. The 2011 Prius gets 51/48 mpg, astounding for a practical reliable midsize car.

No small fuel-efficient all-wheel drive car

Unfortunately Toyota makes nothing for me, none of these are compact all-wheel drive snow cars. The Highland Hybrid gets 28/28 mpg which is fantastic for a 3-row SUV, but way too big. Nobody else is doing much better since I wrote 4×4 x zero 6 years ago: Audi’s A3 TDI isn’t available with AWD, the new Ford Escape won’t offer a hybrid variant and the Ford C-Max hybrid and C-Max Energi plug-in hybrids (not at the show) won’t have AWD. Supposedly Toyota will bring out the RAV4 Electric (not at the show) in 2012 with powertrain by Tesla, but it’s a beefy SUV and unlikely to be practical to drive to Tahoe. The chunky Mini Clubman is very roomy for its short wheelbase thanks to its height, but 25/31 mpg is lame. As no one is making a small AWD hybrid, the best replacement for my aging Subaru is likely to be the new Subaru Impreza, which thanks to a smaller engine and a Lineartronic CVT gets an impressive 27/36 mpg; it’s nice to see Subaru finally offering “premium” features on its small car like leather, heated seats and mirrors.

Speaking of plug-in cars…

  • The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid is a nice car, great as your only car if your regular commute is ~40 miles, but it doesn’t feel like a $39,145 sedan.
  • the Mitsubishi i-MiEV is a quirky small car, just needs to be cheaper
  • the Nissan Leaf was everywhere and they had a fleet you could drive indoors (no emissions!). It feels big and spacious inside and so distinctive.
  • BMW had its lease-only 1-series ActiveE electric car, but the Leaf makes all the “give us $500/month to lease one of a few hundred trial cars” pointless and irrelevant. There was no sign of their innovative i3 and unbelievable i8 future plug-in cars at the show.
  • the Ford Focus Electric was spinning on a stand but you couldn’t open its trunk to see its space-robbing battery pack. At $40,000 it’s way overpriced compared to the Leaf.
  • there was one Fisker plug-in hybrid, an enormous 5,400lb yacht with massive presence

Styling from the past

As for styling, Prius wins for being so aerodynamic, otherwise cars were treading water which means Hyundai and Kia’s handsome-enough models will continue to steal sales. For some reason the Academy of Art had a huge stand showing its classic car collection (do the hordes of would-be artists that it buses around San Francisco know their tuition fees are paying for this?!) and the old cars destroy the new ones. Only Cadillac and Jaguar’s present-day sedans come close to the panache their old cars had. Some classics were so beautiful, like a darling 1947 Cisitalia (one of Battista "Pinin" Farina’s first designs):

and the luscious front and sides of the 1948 Jaguar XK120.

There was also an “aftermarket alley” with tuner cars, most with oversized wheels splaying out from lowered suspensions that look like comic drawings (look at the wheels on the car in the top-right background below). Don’t try to fit snow chains on them! They had a nice series of Nissan Skyline GT-Rs, I didn’t realize it first came out in 1969. Here too, the oldies were better, particularly the Honda/Acura NSX, looking beautiful and purposeful 21 years later.

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