On the Road
One of the features of the Los Angeles International Auto Show Press Days that we look forward to every year is the opportunity to drive or be driven in, however briefly, some of the latest in new green technology. This year provided some especially good choices to sample.
A Few Surprises
Volkswagen’s XL-1 looks like something out of a science fiction film. Its availability at the Ride and Drive caught many journalists (your correspondent included) by surprise. Built to meet the European economy challenge of under 1 liter of fuel consumed per 100 kilometers, 250 examples of this 800 kilo (1760 pound) streamliner are expected to cost about $150,000. No, they did not let us drive it, but the ride confirmed its “not ready for prime time” nature, with its clattery turbodiesel range extender right behind the passenger’s ear.
The Very Latest Thing
BMW has demonstrated a rare commitment to sustainable transportation, bringing out the first mainstream car with a carbon-fiber frame (inset), the all-electric i3. There were twenty-five or thirty of these on hand for the press to drive. Perhaps more amazing, they let us loose on our own, trusting us not to take off for Pechanga for a day of casino carousing. It’s apparent though that there is still some work to be done before we all embrace such a car. The rear doors won’t open without the cooperation of the front seat occupants, the rear windows don’t open at all, and there is a faint thrum in the chassis on every pavement bump. But it’s quiet and very peppy, zipping into any opening in traffic with gleeful alacrity. For those uncomfortable with the range anxiety of a pure electric, a range-extending internal combustion engine option, sourced from BMW’s motorcycles, is planned.
i3’s staid interior contrasts to more exuberant expression available in the Fiat 500e (below).
The opposite of BMW’s “scratch-built” approach to an electric is the more common, to replace the internal combustion engine and gas tank in an existing car with batteries and an electric motor, like the Fiat 500e above. The trade-offs for that approach showed up in the drive, with a good deal less kick off the line, and a softer go-pedal response all up the range. Still, for about three quarters of the sticker price, it’s worth a look as a commuter.
Like the Mini Cooper’s, the Fiat 500e’s interior is very self consciously styled. The danger in that approach is that people may love it or hate it.
The BMW 328d Sportwagon is the descendant of our family car, a ten year old BMW 325iT that we love, so it was practically mandatory that I give this one a try. With the added weight of BMW’s “X-Drive” all-wheel drive system, one might expect some sluggishness in its handling, but in our short drive no such faults appeared. It is entertaining though, to mash the throttle and have the 8-speed transmission upshift at such low rpm, taking advantage of the high torque of the new four cylinder turbo diesel, rather than letting the engine rev to a musical peak like most BMWs. That agreeable shove in the back will have many drivers changing their minds about diesel power.
Not So Exotic Anymore
After the exotica of the turbo-diesel hybrid VW XL1 and the carbon fiber BMW i3 the Hundai Sonata Hybrid felt solidly mainstream. Performance is automotive-ordinary, and the EPA credits it with 36 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway. That puts it well behind Honda’s new Accord Hybrid though. That car is this year’s Green Car of the Year, with 50 and 45.