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Los Angeles’ Museum Row Gets New Landmark Look
The exterior treatment of the new Petersen is stunning, especially at night.
As media reaction to the new Petersen Automotive Museum exterior’s hot rod flame treatment rolls out it’s difficult not to be reminded of how critics panned the design of the Disney Concert Hall downtown.
Our most vivid recollection is of someone remarking that it looked as though they’d left the architectural model sitting out in the rain. A while back we had an extended opportunity to experience it on a daily basis, and it seemed everyone who passed was admiring it. Look at any rack of postcards in the area and you’re sure to find pictures of it. It’s become something of a symbol of the city.
In our opinion, the new Petersen is headed toward that kind of acceptance. It will be the southwest anchor of the Miracle Mile and Museum Row in Los Angeles, and as one critic admitted, the public will probably love it.
The Penthouse Deck on the fourth floor retains the original tea room from the days of the original Seibu Department Store that constitutes the bones of the building, with the exuberant treatment of the building exterior flowing overhead.
You don’t have to pay the admission fee to see a few great cars at the Petersen. The Mullin Family Concourse is open to the public, giving access to all of Museum Row from the Petersen’s garage, and teases with a few automotive treasures to entice you in.
Walking into the concourse, one of the first cars you see now is among the most famous of the Petersen Collection, this 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I – the “Round-Door Rolls.”
Originally an open car, the Round Door Rolls was rebodied by truck builder Jonckheer of Belgium in 1934, reportedly for the sole purpose of winning concours. It worked. The car won the Prix d’Honneur at the Concours d’Elegance at Cannes in 1936. The car had a short show-biz career in a carnival, painted gold and passed off as the Prince of Wales’ ride. Found in derelict condition, it is one of the few cars in the collection actually restored under the Petersens’ care.
The previous Museum’s first floor consisted of a Streetscape, depicting the history of Los Angeles and the cars that facilitated its sprawl, illustrated in dioramas and exhibiting cars from the times. The second floor had an alternative fuels exhibit and several galleries for rotating exhibits based on themes. The third floor had offices and the Discovery Center where kids could learn about cars and play with automotive-themed artifacts.
The trouble with that scheme was that it severely limited how many of the over 300 cars in the Petersen Collection could be displayed at any one time, not to mention any cars loaned from other collectors and museums.
Now all three floors are chock-full of cars, arranged in three themes. They are arranged so that they are best experienced from the top down.
The Third Floor
Administrative offices went to the basement and it’s now themed as the History of the Automobile, arranged by themes rather than chronology.
It starts with one of the Museum’s Crown Jewels, the Steve McQueen 1956 Jaguar XK-SS, in front of a screen showing a film about what we like about our cars, what we do with them, and where we go with them.
On this floor there’s everything from the Collection’s 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen to one of the earliest pilot production Dodge Viper SRT8s.
There’s a row of cars associated with Hollywood, including the Volkswagen van from Little Miss Sunshine, one of Fatty Arbuckle’s cars (a Renault), Elvis Presley’s DeTomaso Pantera, complete with the bullet holes it got when he shot it for failing to start, the Magnum P.I. Ferrari, and an Aston Martin DB10 from the James Bond movie Spectre.
One of the James Bond Aston Martins, a DB5 FHC from Goldfinger, complete with ejector seat and tire slicers, is included in the Precious Metal exhibit. This one, a DB10 from Spectre, closes the Circle to date, and is among the Hollywood cars on exhibit, a small sample of the Museum’s extensive collection.
There are rods and customs, including two of the nine America’s Most Beautiful Roadsters (AMBR) in the Petersen’s Collection. One is the very first rod to win the AMBR award in 1950 at the Oakland Roadster Show (now the Grand National Roadster Show, held in Pomona).
We’re not alone in considering this the most beautiful custom car ever built. 26 years ago Billy Gibbons, lead guitarist for ZZ Top commissioned legendary customizer Boyd Coddington to create CadZZilla on a 1948 Cadillac Series 62 Sedanette foundation based on a concept Gibbons imagined with Cadillac designer Larry Erickson. Gibbons shows the car here and there, but usually it calls the Petersen home.
Recently deceased George Barris partnered with his brother Sam in 1952 to create the quintessential ’49-51 Mercury “Kustom Koupe,” chopping the top and removing the “B” pillars, among other features.
Appropriate for a museum founded by the Petersens and co-chaired by prominent hot rod collector Bruce Meyer, hot rods have a significant presence, including one that pretty much set the pattern for Deuce roadsters.
The genesis of the Doane Spencer Roadster, currently a key component of Petersen Co-Chair Bruce Meyer’s collection, goes all the way back to 1944. It’s the first Deuce to be fitted with a DuVall windshield (Hot rodders keep track of these things.) and introduced other features later copied on other Deuces. At one time it was prepared to race in the Carrera Panamericana, receiving extra chassis bracing and exhaust was channeled through the frame rails for improved ground clearance.
The “Niekamp” Roadster, winner of the first AMBR award. Like most rods, it’s made up of pieces from four or five different cars, with some custom fabricated parts. In the Background is a mildly customized Mercury, and the largest-selling motorized vehicle in history, the 50cc Honda Cub.
In 2010 Scott’s Hot Rods were racing literally up to the last minute to meet the 12:00 deadline for entering “Possessed” in the AMBR competition, facing setbacks like wrong-size tires and a freeway snarl between Oxnard and Pomona 90 miles away. They arrived at the scrutineers with the trailer dragging traffic cones and chased by parking attendants, at 11:59. The story wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if they hadn’t won.
General Motors didn’t want any of its concept cars to fall into private hands, and ordered them destroyed. Fortunately for us, several were discovered in pieces in a junk yard by Joe Bortz, who rescued them and restored them. This is the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne XP37, whose lines hold up pretty well today. Sharp eyes may recognize some design elements that showed up in the Corvette and Corvair.
The Second Floor
The Second floor is dedicated to the Automotive Industry. Everything from the earliest stages of product planning to the showroom floor is explored. There’s even a studio that’s an extension of the Art Center College of Design, where design students will work on their projects.
Car construction is illustrated with a cutaway of a Jaguar XKF.
The new Discovery Center lures the kids (of all sizes) in with interactive displays created by Pixar, using its Cars characters (with the actual actors voicing them) to demonstrate how cars work, and allowing the participants to design their own cars.
Lightning McQueen, in full size, gets star billing in the new Discovery center. The movie character was actually engineered according to current NASCAR practice to insure accurate depiction of the car’s behavior on the road or track (up to a point, of course) in the movie. As a result, the interactive displays that show his inner workings are both correct and true to the character.
There is an exhibit showing the stages of building a Maserati Quatroporte, one of the most beautiful four-door sedans available today. Here is the Final Product.
Motorsports as a driver of design and engineering is a major theme on the second floor. One large room displays significant racing cars from the Nearburg Collection, with a 180 degree wrap-around film depicting racing in all its varieties and nuances.
Road racing in the early ’50s was contested by the greats – Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, etc. Not to be forgotten is Lancia, whose D24s won both the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia. This 1953 D24R is the car that Juan Manuel Fangio drove to victory in the 1953 Carrera Panamericana.
In the electronic age, it is not just racing that manufacturers use to convey an image of performance. Ford reaps tremendous PR from the YouTube exploits of Ken Block in his 650 horsepower all-wheel drive Ford Fiesta.
In many cases, it was the work of back-yard mechanics and the shops that served them that pushed American manufacturers to improve performance in their cars. Young men who had learned skills in the service during WWII came home and continued a tradition begun long before, of building their own cars from pieces of others, perhaps scavenged in junk yards.
Robert Petersen was the first to recognize the popularity of hot rodding and put the sport in print. In January of 1948 he published Volume One Number One of Hot Rod magazine. Regg Schlemmer’s roadster graced the cover of that issue (inset), and served as the inspiration for Roy Brizio’s tribute car, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the magazine.
Two Wheels Only
There was a short period in transportation history when the fastest form of travel was by motorcycle. The Petersen’s extremely compact motorcycle exhibit spans from a 1903 Thor to a 2015 Kawasaki supercharged liter bike with over 300 horsepower. In between there are bikes with one, two, four, six and eight cylinders (unaccountably omitting the Triumph and BSA triples), and an example of some of the most significant motorcycles ever. The word “iconic” is grossly overused but certainly applies here.
Other motorcycles, such as Steve McQueen’s Indian Big Chief and an example of the first four-cylinder motorcycle can be found on the third floor.
Anyone who has seen the David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia has seen a Brough Superior. T. E. Lawrence owned at least four of these expensive motorcycles, and it was on one of these that he crashed in 1935 as seen in the movie. This is “Old Bill” the prototype SS80 that George Brough himself raced to great success in hill climbs. The Red machine behind on the left is a Crocker, built in Los Angeles and said to outperform the Indians and Harley-Davidsons of the day.
Today we seem awash in silver cars. At one time though, the combination of silver paint and lots of bright metal was a feature of the most elegant and prestigious cars, going back to AX201, the 1907 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce. For its opening, the Museum presents ten stunning silver cars, ranging from a Ghia Fiat Supersonic two-liter V8 to the all-conquering “Silver Arrow” Mercedes Benz W196.
Standing in one place, one is within feet of three cars that have won the prestigious title of Best in Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Viewed over the starboard wing of the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger, on the right is the Nethercutt’s 1933 Duesenberg J Rolston Arlington Torpedo Sedan called the “Twenty Grand” for it’s purchase price. On the left is Jon Shirley’s 1953 Ferrari 375 MM, originally owned by film director Roberto Rosellini who had it rebodied by Scaglietti. Behind it is the 2009 Best in Show 1937 Horch 853 Cabriolet, with a few period-correct enhancements added since it won.
The Mullin Collection’s 1938 Hispano Suiza Dubonnet Xenia with aero bodywork by Saoutchick. There are more typical examples of French coachwork in the first floor Mullin gallery, but none more impressive than this. The doors open parallel to the car’s axis on patented parallelogram hinges, and the suspension design by the heir to the Dubonnet aperitif fortune, André Dubonnet, was bought by General Motors.
The First Floor
Art on Autos, and Vice Versa
In 1975 Hervé Poulain persuaded BMW Motorsport Director Jochen Neerpasch to supply a car for him to race at Le Mans. He then commissioned American artist Alexander Calder to unleash his creativity on the car, creating the first “Art Car.” The idea caught on, and BMW bought into the idea, commissioning 17 other artists to create their own versions. The Armand Hammer Foundation Gallery was devoted to an exhibition relating that series.
The car that started it all. 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL Le Mans race car with decorative paint job by Alexander Calder. Behind it is the BMW 850si painted by David Hockney, and on the wall are pictures and descriptions of the other BMW Art Cars.
It’s one thing to paint a car, but BMW got creative and used a car to paint. This is a section of a huge “canvas” created by taking the BMW Z4 displayed and applying paint to its tires with squirters, then driving it as directed by the artist, Robin Rhode.
Cars as Sculpture
The Art Deco movement affected every aspect of design. On cars it manifested as an attempt to capture the idea of speed and motion in the design of the vehicle itself. Aerodynamics were studied and applied. The result in many cases was a car that looked as though it was moving fast while standing still.
Since the French were at the forefront of the movement, there are bound to be mutterings that the Museum’s Board Co-Chairman Peter Mullin is turning a museum founded on hot rodding into a French car museum, but with an entire museum of his own in Oxnard devoted to that theme, there’s little to fear.
The upside of the Mullin connection is that the Petersen gets to show some of the most stunning cars ever built. The car rumored to have set a record for the private sale of a car ($35 million), the 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic above, was in the Art of the Automobile display.
With almost 100,000 square feet of display space, the reader will understand that only a tiny fraction of the experience is documented here, and no photograph can convey what you experience seeing it in person. On top of that are all the interactive features, including the Forza Racing Experience, where you can drive a simulator and compete with real racing drivers and your friends and neighbors. During the real Le Mans race in June you can actually race in real time as though you were there.
So the obvious admonition is to get down to the Petersen Automotive Museum yourself and experience it personally. Admission fees are reasonable (Adults: $15, Students and Seniors: $12, Kids: $7, Under 3 free). The first 20 minutes of parking is free if you want to dash in and buy a Holiday gift at the store.
CARMA is a publication of The OM Dude Press
a service of Options in Mobility
Author, Editor, Publisher, Reporter, Historian, Archivist: Dick Stewart.
All photographs are by the author unless attributed otherwise.
Intros & Newcomers
Some people may attend an event like the 2015 Los Angeles International Auto Show to get a chance to see all the candidates for a new car purchase in one setting. Some may just want to see the cars they’ve been reading and hearing about for a year. We go to see what’s new.
Finally! The real thing!
Honda has been teasing us about a sequel to the 1990 – 2005 game-changing NSX mid-engine exotic, with Superbowl adds featuring Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld fighting over first delivery rights, for years. Now it’s actually here, and you’ll pardon us for being underwhelmed.
Acura’s NSX follows current exotic practice with a hybrid powertrain featuring a mid-mounted 500 horsepower twin turbo 3.5 liter V6 and three electric motors for a total power output of 573 horsepower.
This is not news. Twenty-three years ago Jaguar introduced the XJ220 with a 3.5 liter twin turbo V6 and 542 horsepower. BMW, Porsche, Ferrari and McLaren have all introduced exotic hybrid sports cars in the last year, many with specifications that far surpass the new NSX.
The car is not even built on a carbon fiber tub – nearly mandatory in order to be taken seriously these days.
So it’s a little hard to get excited over such limited progress. In point of fact, it sounds only marginally more exciting than a standard Corvette – not even a Z06. It isn’t even all that exotic looking. Maybe it would look more compelling in a brighter color.
At an estimated price around $160,000, it will have little competition among mid-engine exotics. Depending on options, perhaps an Audi R8 might qualify, and a McLaren 570S is just a bit more dear.
A Big Gamble
Fifty years ago, Ford committed huge resources in a bid to unseat Ferrari as the premier maker of endurance racing machinery. They succeeded, sweeping the podium at Le Mans with their NASCAR-engined GT40s. Since then they produced a more civilized tribute to those cars in the limited-production (and bargain-priced by exotic standards) Ford GT.
But that was a street car – sold for fast touring and showing at your local concours d’elegance. Now Ford is getting serious again. Their new exotic could bring new glory to Ford – or fall flat on its face.
Ford’s new GT is another 3.5 liter twin turbo-powered exotic. Get in line quickly (only about 1,000 will be made) and you may be able to buy one – depending on how much equity you have in your house, or how deep your pockets are. Pricing is estimated at about a quarter million dollars.
Ford is counting on the tie-in between the race version of the GT and its turbocharged small displacement consumer “EcoBoost” products to bring those power trains popular legitimacy as they move away from large displacement naturally aspirated engines.
Ford Focus – Video Game Version
With youth less interested in car culture (Many teens no longer lust after that first driver’s license.) it has become important to place automotive products where the kids will see them – in computer games where the reigning champs are Japanese and European hot hatches.
That EcoBoost ethic that informs and powers the new Ford GT also motivates the finally-come-to-the-US Ford Focus RS. Only 2.3 liters, but sending 350 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque to all four wheels, so those who were mesmerized by the YouTube exploits of Ken Block can now become hot hatch hooligans too, for a base MSRP of $36,605.
Return of the Italians
Alfa Romeo is a brand with a racing heritage that predates Ford’s by a half century or more. They ceased selling cars in the United States in 1995. Although frequent rumors had them returning many times, it was not until the expensive high-performance 8C Competizione was offered here in 2008 that the marque reappeared.
That car had extremely limited production, but at last, in 2014 they introduced the lightweight, sharply focused 4C Coupe, making a more affordable Italian sports car available again.
But that car’s narrow focus on driver involvement (no power steering) at the expense of comfort insured that it would never sell in high volumes. For that, and for the long-term viability of the brand, they needed a sedan – one that could satisfy the high expectations of Alfa enthusiasts – the Alfisti.
The initial offering in the US is the upscale Giulia Quadrifoglio model, expected to sell in the $70,000 range. Expected later is a 2.2 liter “Multijet” turbo four that makes 197 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque in the corporate sibling Jeep Cherokee.
When Alfa Romeo’s Giulia sport sedan came to the US, Alfa came out with all guns blazing with the highest performance version, the 505 horsepower Quadrifoglio. Alfisti expect great things, with a reported lap time at the Nurbürgring faster than a BMW M4.
Okay. we didn’t come up with that one. It’s what some in the press are calling Fiat’s new sports car built in collaboration with Mazda.
A little background.
In 1966 Fiat introduced a sports roadster powered by a sweet little dual overhead cam four, and priced within the reach of ordinary enthusiasts. The body was a Pininfarina design penned by Tom Tjaarda, who worked on the Chevrolet Sting Ray and DeTomaso Pantera, among others.
One of those others was the beautiful Ferrari 275 GTS, and no one could look at that car next to the Fiat 124 Spider and miss the resemblance.
Top: The Fiat 124 Spider of the sixties and seventies. Middle: The “Fiata” – 2016 Fiat 124 Spider, introduced at the LA Auto Show. Bottom: The Ferrari 275 GTS.
Mazda’s MX-5 Miata has earned near-universal praise for having resisted the trend toward making succeeding versions of successful cars bigger, heavier, and more powerful. Instead they concentrated on driver satisfaction, making the cars nimble and responsive, with perfect balance.
Fiat took that chassis and clothed it in a shameless tribute to the sixties car. The result, in your correspondent’s opinion, is drop-dead gorgeous.
They sacrificed some of the Miata’s lightness in lengthening the car and giving it an unmistakable Italian flair. Instead of the Mazda’s fine 155 horsepower 2-liter four, they installed the Multiair turbo four from the 500 Abarth, which contributes a 10 horsepower bump and more significantly, 32 more pound-feet of torque.
If this car comes in at a small enough price premium over the Miata, it should sell sensationally, or there is no justice in the car universe. If they install a 200 horsepower Multijet turbo four and call it the Abarth version, even better!
Another “3-Series Fighter”
It’s been out a while, but this was our first look at Jaguar’s entry into the ongoing sweepstakes to see if anyone can unseat the BMW 3-Series as the entry level luxury Sport Sedan of choice. (See the Alfa Giulia above.)
Enthusiasts bewail the fattening-up of the 3-Series, so they may welcome the Jaguar XE that is reported to have returned to the foundations of the BMW 3-Series’ appeal. It is said to sacrifice perhaps a few inches of interior room to a lighter (thanks to a new aluminum architecture) more agile persona.
The last vestiges of the Ford influence at Jaguar will soon pass as they replace the 2-liter turbo Ford four with a similar “Ingenium” base engine (with a turbo diesel variant) to go with the AJ V6 supercharged 3-liter.
Porsche 911 Targa
We confess that the charms of the original Porsche 911 Targa are lost on us. In our eyes the Targa bar interrupted the car’s lines, and made the rear window (when there was one) too vertical. Porsche has brought back the concept, and in so doing has, in our humble opinion, corrected that flaw.
A good compromise between a coupe with a sunroof and the (IMO) hunchbacked Cabrio, the new Targa preserves the familiar profile while offering open motoring. This one had an as-equipped price around $125,000.
Car of the Year
Chevrolet made quite a haul this year, with their redesigned Volt garnering a Green Car of the Year Award, and winning both the Truck and Car divisions of Motor Trend‘s “of the Year” awards.
It’s difficult to accept for a hereditary Ford guy, but as good as the 2015 Ford Mustang is (and it is sensational), Chevrolet has come up with a serious competitor.
The previous generation Camaro was handicapped by a foundation shared with a sedan, leaving that car hundreds of pounds heavier than the Mustang, which is built on a dedicated chassis shared with no other car.
The new Chevy also shares its chassis with other cars, but it is the thoroughly modern one that underpins the Cadillac ATS, and comes in under the Mustang in weight. If you can get past the gunport slits they offer for windows, it appears that the cars compete well with the Mustang.
Smaller, lighter, and more powerful than its predecessor, the Motor Trend Car of the Year Camaro is well equipped to compete in the pony car wars.
Our rule for convertibles is that they have to look at least as good with the top down as the hardtop did before they took the top off. In our editorial opinion, the Camaro Convertible (not yet released) meets that criterion. In fact, without the letter-box windows, the car looks better with no top.
One note: It appears that Motor Trend has a typo in their data panel for the Camaro SS. That’s the one with the Corvette V8. They list the base price as $37,295 and the “as tested” price as $38,585 compared to their $46,380 estimate for a Mustang GT.
We went to Edmund’s and priced out a car with only performance options and came up with an MSRP for the Camaro of $48,275, and a comparably equipped Mustang Premium Coupe at $39,480. At that price, for 0nly $1,720 more you could get a stripped Mustang Shelby GT350 with its screaming flat-plane-crank V8.
Come on Down!
The Auto Show is always a challenge to reporters. There are just too many cars. We came as close as we could to getting a picture of every car at the show, taking just under a thousand pictures. Sorting through them and coming up with the ones you’ll want to see and read about is a tough job, but someone has to do it. Glad we could step up. We’ll have more in subsequent blogs.
CARMA is a publication of The OM Dude Press
a service of Options in Mobility
Author, Editor, Publisher, Reporter, Historian, Archivist: Dick Stewart.
All photographs are by the author unless attributed otherwise.
Click on the images to view more detail. If the cursor is a plus sign in a circle, clicking again will yield full resolution.
Alt Auto Expo 2015
Every year about this time, Santa Monica, California, hosts a gathering of vehicles that attempt to circumvent the mainstream tech of the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, and display a variety of alternative means of getting from here to there. From the beginning there was promise of White Night technology that would knock the king off his throne, or at least offer an attractive alternative. So far the conquering hero has not shown up, but there has been incremental progress.
The Big Boys Weigh In
The first Alt Auto Expo had dozens of start-up companies offering all kinds of electric vehicles and those powered by fuels other than gasoline, or combinations of different technologies. We were no doubt in good company then, wondering which, if any, would shake out in the coming years. The evidence is that there are now basically four approaches with a good chance of surviving. The evidence is that the major manufacturers are investing in each.
Volt and Its Copiers
Second Generation Volt – Plug-in Hybrids
Chevrolet is where General Motors has chosen to invest its considerable resources in the variation on the Hybrid theme. Unlike the familiar Toyota Prius, their Volt mated a gasoline-powered generator to a sophisticated battery-powered electric drive system that was said to employ more lines of code in its control software than the Space Shuttle.
In that model, the engine seldom actually drove the wheels, but mostly generated electricity to recharge the batteries that supplied electricity to the motors that drove the car. You could plug it in at night when rates were low, and if your commute was moderate, you could drive it for weeks without filling the gas tank.
There is a definite family resemblance to the original Volt, but the new shape is sleeker, less blocky. Interior space is up, with a fifth seat belt in the center of the back seat, really just giving the two back seat passengers more room. They were not offering drives.
By increasing its electric motors’ torque, reducing the weight of the batteries and increasing their power density, making the internal combustion engine both lighter and more powerful, and reducing weight (down 200 pounds), Chevrolet has pulled the neat stunt of making its new Volt roomier, quicker, and more fuel efficient when running on gas, with longer electric-only range (up to 53 miles).
The new Volt is a true hybrid now, with the gas engine powering the wheels under more circumstances. This takes a load off the batteries under cruising, and allows each power source to operate in its most efficient mode. There’s also a new menu option that allows more aggressive regeneration on deceleration, making it a one-pedal car under many conditions, freeing the gas engine from recharging duties for longer periods.
From GM’s point of view, the most important aspect of the redesign may be that the car costs less to build.
The i3 from BMW
BMW started with a cleaner sheet of paper for their i-series commuter car. They made a serious commitment to sustainable production, with the industry’s most advanced carbon fiber facility, run on hydroelectric power at Moses Lake, Washington. New techniques allow production of the i3’s lightweight carbon fiber chassis without the astronomical cost previously practical only on single-purpose racing cars and six and seven-figure exotics.
Attractive optional BMW i3 interior features natural tanned leather accents and cloth made from 100% recycled polyester. The picture makes it look more dirt-vulnerable than it is. You can’t get in or out of the back seat without the complicity of a front-seat occupant.
No rain forest hardwoods here. That’s eucalyptus on the dash, a wood that’s practically a weed in Southern California, and they harvest it sustainably. Other interior finishes include the carbon fiber composite structure itself, and scrap carbon fiber used as trim.
The i3 is first a BEV (Battery-Powered Electric Vehicle) but it’s also available as an extended-range electric, with a two-cylinder engine borrowed from BMW’s two-wheel stable. With that engine, the range is extended from 81 miles for the BEV, to 150 miles with the gas engine. Since the demise of the Fisker Karma, it’s now the only vehicle where that engine never drives the wheels. The reason for the short range is that the car’s gas-fueled range cannot exceed its electric range under California regulations, lest it lose its zero-emissions status and cost BMW valuable zero emission credits.
Dozens of BMW i3s lined up for press drives – without chaparones – at the 2013 Los Angeles International Auto Show. The cars are terrific commuter cars, lively and nimble, changing lanes seemingly by mental telepathy.
Audi E-Tron Plug-in Hybrid
Audi went the more traditional (if that word can be applied to such a recent trend) approach of the plug-in hybrid. It loses its California zero-emissions credit because its total range is more than double its 30 mile electric-only claim.
Based on the hatchback version of the well-received A3 hatchback, Audi’s plug-in hybrid does not shout its green credentials as loudly as the graphics on the demo car. Its power port is cleverly hidden behind the four-ring Audi emblem (below).
Marketing strategy for the e-Tron appears to depend on the driving experience, rather than the environmental friendliness of the cars. The 1.4 liter internal combustion four-cylinder is rated at 150 horsepower, with a boost off the line from its 102 horsepower electric motor.
Although they claim a 157 mpg capability, the circumstances where that can be achieved are probably no more likely for the average motorist than those under which most drivers will ever see its claimed top speed of 138 mph.
Audi’s interiors are sometimes held up as the standard of the industry in their respective classes. Nothing in the A-3’s cockpit inspires lavish praise, but in our short drive it functioned well enough, in a kind of Teutonically efficient manner. Not much can be deduced about the car’s driving dynamics from our drive around the Civic Center block.
Range, performance, price – choose two.
Bolt – With a “B”
GM is planning production of a new all-electric car for 2017. A concept car was shown next to the new Volt. It is expected to be a direct competitor to the planned “affordable” Tesla.
All that they would say about the Bolt is that it would have a range around two hundred miles and cost about $37,500 before government incentives are applied. It will share the Sonic architecture and speculation is that it will use the same motor in the Spark EV below.
The Big Boy in the electric-only universe, Tesla, does not maintain a presence at the Expo, although this year they did loan an S85D (the dual motor car, minus the Ludicrous option that gives it a claimed acceleration from zero to 60 in 2.6 seconds) to the Petersen Automotive Museum for display under their inadequate shade pavilion.
Chevy had two BEVs at the show – one to drive and one concept.
Most closely resembling the Honda Fit, in the Packaging Wars the Chevrolet Spark EV seduces with power and torque.
Chevrolet’s Spark, when saddled with the standard 1.2 liter four cylinder gas engine, has little to recommend it other than a low price. Substituting a 140 horsepower electric motor and 121 kWh lithium-ion battery apparently transforms the car. (We did not drive it.) The secret is 400 (yes, that’s four followed by two zeros) pound-feet of torque. An EV that’s actually fun to drive, and doesn’t cost BMW bucks!
Range anxiety is always an EV concern. GM has partnered with other manufacturers to develop a charging system similar to Tesla’s SuperCharger, that allows a Spark EV to reach a full charge in twenty minutes. Range is EPA rated at 82 miles, but we spoke with an owner who claims his Spark EV has made two (gently driven) trips to Monterey (about 100 miles) with charge to spare. He says his lease was $500 down and $50 a month. Perhaps we misremember.
Kia Soul EV
With a claimed 93 mile range, the Kia Soul EV beats all the other BEVs save the Tesla, has a price comparable to other commuter BEVs, and scoots about as well as the Fiat 500 e (below). Charge times are about the same as other BEVs, but the Kia hides not one but two charge ports behind a sliding cover much like the Audi’s. Each works with a specific charging system, adding flexibility to reduce range anxiety.
The appeal of the Fiat 500s, including the 500e, is partly for their cuteness. The Kia soul actively courts that perception with its giant hamster ads. You can get more stuff in the Kia.
Performance, range, and price of VW’s e-Golf are competitive, with a bit of extra sparkle from its excellent driving dynamics.
Choosing an electric-only car is a tough decision. Reputation will play a large part in many buyers’ selection process. Will news of Volkswagen’s cheating on emissions with their award-winning diesel powered products harm theirs and Audi’s? Stay tuned.
For now, hydrogen power in cars means fuel cells. These are devices for converting fuel to electricity without burning it. Without going into detail, it’s basically exchanging ions, with hydrogen and oxygen on one side of the process and electricity and distilled water on the other.
Also for now, most of the hydrogen used in fuel cell vehicles comes from fossil fuel. Much of it was already being produced in the process of refining oil and making other products from natural gas, so it’s pretty carbon neutral at the current rate of consumption.
Getting that hydrogen to the people driving fuel cell vehicles is the issue. Several sources have come together to provide a refueling infrastructure for hydrogen-powered cars, but until those plans bear fruit, owning or leasing a Fuel Cell Vehicle remains a prospect for early adopters and the tech-obsessed.
The Toyota Mirai
Hyundai was the first major company to put a production fuel cell vehicle in the hands of consumers, but those Hyundai Tucsons are leased – and they weren’t letting us drive them. Toyota is the first to have confidence enough in their product to leave it in an owner’s hands for as long as the owner wants it, and to take their chances when they sell as used cars.
It’s one thing to say that a fuel cell produces nothing but distilled water, and quite another to watch it piddling onto the pavement behind the car (inset). Toyota’s Mirai is an electric car, motivated by electric motor like others. The difference is it makes its own electricity.
Toyota says the evocation of a catamaran from the frontal aspect of the Mirai is deliberate. It comes from their desire to emphasize the “air in – water out” nature of a fuel cell. They still need a battery, and Toyota remains at least one generation behind the state of the art, with nickel-metal-hydrides instead of lithium ion or lithium polymer.
The Mirai is about the same size as a Camry, though 2.5″ taller. They will be more than twice the price of that Camry, if it’s a hybrid, and weigh a hulking 4080 pounds. The motor produces 151 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque, roughly what Volkswagen was getting out of their 2.0 liter turbodiesel, before they were caught cheating on the emissions tests.
Our particular Mirai had no paper plate when our turn came up, so we got more ride and drive time than anyone else while we went over to Toyota of Santa Monica to get one. The result is that we observed that the car is much more solid-feeling than a BMW i3, but has a non-Toyota-like buzz on hard acceleration that is not present in other electric vehicles we’ve driven, except for a Volvo that was clearly too early in development for them to be letting us drive it. No doubt, when they first Mirais are delivered to customers, that buzz will be history.
So what’s the State of the Tech?
As stated at the start, there now appear to be four technologies that will be available to us when we go searching for a car that doesn’t just run on explosions and emit twenty-five percent of its fuel back into the atmosphere in the form of flatulence.
We predict that none of them is a real threat to replace the fossil fuel powered internal combustion engine for those who need one car for commuting, errands, and road trips, and who have average income – as long as gas stays under $6.00 a gallon.
For the next few years, expect the hybrid, and its heavier cousin the plug-in hybrid, to lead the way. The technology is mature and there’s an established market.
While installation of public charging stations accelerates, battery-powered electrics and those plug-in hybrids and extended-range electrics will gain favor.
Will private and public support remain strong enough to maintain the pace of installation of hydrogen refueling stations to tempt enough buyers/lessors to make fuel cells a viable business model?
We’re back where we were when these shows first stated that kind of question. We’ll be back next year to see if anything has changed.