2011 Los Angeles Auto Show Unplugged

By · November 18, 2011

Dok-Ing XD electric car

It feels like the old days, when the most exciting electric car at the show is a small one-off displayed in the basement.

I just returned from two days at this year’s L.A. auto show. What a difference a year makes. At last year’s show, we seemed poised for a plug-in car revolution—with Honda first unveiling its Fit EV; the Chevy Volt taking the Green Car of the Year award; Coda making its auto show debut; Fisker gearing up for its (supposed) introduction to market; Volvo showing off the C30 Electric; and Toyota-Tesla taking the wraps off the RAV4 EV. By comparison, this year’s show is an electric dud.

Perhaps the biggest difference between last year and now is the anticipation we were experiencing in 2010 for the first LEAF and Volt sales. That’s past us, and now it’s just a numbers game—waiting to see whether the latest month’s sales are up or down by a few hundred units. Is the EV honeymoon over?

The biggest news, as we reported a few days ago, is Honda’s ultra-tentative move to make the Fit EV only available as a lease. At the same time, the production target of just 1,100 cars is meager. There are other questions about the Fit EV, like how the car’s 20 kilowatt-hour battery can manage to provide anywhere near 123 miles of range. Maybe Honda is using a relatively smaller battery in order to minimize costs—while taxing that pack even if it means shorter battery life. A lease program means the company doesn’t have to make a long-term commitment.

Coda at Ride and Drive

The Coda electric sedan and Mitsubishi i were among the cars featured in the L.A. Auto Show's green ride and drive.

In one of the few bright spots, Coda Automotive seems quite committed to the long haul—as evidenced by the move to extend its battery warranty from eight to 10 years. That’s good, but the Coda sedan—even at the lower price of $39,900—is a hard sell, considering its lackluster design and vehicle dynamics.

Missing in Action

Meanwhile, Toyota didn’t hold a press conference at all, and Fisker didn’t even put a display. You have to question Fisker’s marketing plan: The company shows up at major auto shows for years prior to putting the Karma plug-in hybrid on the market—and just when finally it appears ready to sell a car (rather than an idea), it goes missing in action from the Los Angeles Auto Show. Huh?

There were two plug-ins up for the 2011 Green Car of the Year award—the Mitsubishi i and the Ford Focus Electric. The judges passed up those electrics and went for the Honda Civic that runs on compressed natural gas. I drove the CNG Civic all last week. It’s cool that Honda is finally putting the CNG car out with nicer trim choices and to a wider market, but it’s as boring as a drive can get. The car has been tuned for maximum efficiency and sluggishness. I couldn’t wait to get back into my LEAF, which I can charge at home, instead of the single CNG refueling station across town. On the other hand, I wish my LEAF had the CNG Civic’s 200-plus miles of range.

In fairness, BMW displayed the i3 electric and i8 plug-in hybrid, an official North American debut. But BMW stole its own thunder, by showing the car in a New York gallery nearly two weeks ago—giving the scoop to east coast journalists and making its showing in L.A. seem like old news.

The one moment of levity I enjoyed at the L.A. show was getting to meet the guys behind the Dok-Ing XD—an EV that packs the acceleration of the Tesla Roadster into a vehicle the size of the Smart Electric Drive. Dok-Ing is a Croation company that primarily makes equipment for removing land mines. Check out my post about it for the New York Times Wheels blog. This is the electric car that I found the most interesting and exciting at the 2011 L.A. show. That speaks volumes about the poor showing for electric cars at the major auto show in the country’s biggest market for plug-in vehicles. Let’s hope for better at the Tokyo show coming up in a few weeks.

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