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2016 Los Angeles Auto Show

When I posted my report on the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show I remarked that I hadn't missed an iteration of that show in almost thirty years, despite having moved to Hawaii at the end of 2007. I must have jinxed myself, because the following year family commitments prevented me from making the trip. This year, though, as I have in every other year since we moved from California, I was able to time a business trip to catch the show on November 26, 2016, and boy is there a lot to talk about!

Chevrolet Bolt EV and Volt

The biggest news for me was the debut in L.A. of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the new battery-electric car that I consider to be the true successor to the GM EV1 of twenty years earlier: unlike the Spark EV of the last few years, which was a conversion of a gasoline vehicle, the Bolt is designed as an EV from the ground up, and unlike the Volt on the stage behind it, it is a battery-only electric vehicle, with no gasoline powertrain to back it up. The Bolt, which will be in showrooms in about a month, is the first of a new wave of affordable battery-only electric vehicles with a range of around 200 miles, instead of around 100 miles like most previous models. (Tesla vehicles to date have had even longer ranges, but have hardly been affordable, while the Tesla Model 3 that made such a splash in the spring won't be available for sale for more than a year.) Like the redesigned 2016 Volt, the Bolt will initially be available only in California and a few other states but in later model years it is planned to go nationwide (I've already started seeing 2017 Volts in Hawaii).

I was going to joke that my biggest worry about the Bolt was the name: if you have a cold, it's hard to say "Bolt" and "Volt" so that they sound different. I am told that this is why it is being branded the "Bolt EV" rather than just "Bolt." However, a far more pressing concern arose when, not three days after the election, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) sent a letter to the new President-elect asking for rollbacks of emissions and fuel-economy rules, including alternative-fuel mandates and, worse, requesting that he work with Congress to strip the California Air Resources Board (CARB) of its ability to set rules stricter than the federal ones. Every major automaker that has produced plug-in vehicles for the U.S. is a member of AAM except Nissan, Kia, Hyundai, Honda, and of course Tesla, which means that even as they are introducing new models like those reported on here, out of the other side of their mouths they are complaining about how difficult and uneconomical they are to build.

The number of plug-in vehicles in the U.S. is a hundred times what it was when the EV1 and its contemporaries were crushed, and they are earning mainstream accolades and acclaim, like the Bolt EV winning the Motor Trend Car of the Year award for 2017, so circumstances are quite a bit different from those a decade and a half ago. Moreover, the rest of the world isn't in the grip of global-warming denial, and drivers in other countries will continue to buy EVs, so we can hope that the horse is out of the barn for good this time. However, automakers have demonstrated a willingness in the past to abandon electric vehicles and declare failure when they felt that success would undermine their arguments for weakening emission limits; we've seen this movie before, and the ending wasn't happy. So, those of us with long memories will be watching very closely over the next few years.

Chrysler Pacifica PHEV

Well, with that caveat, there was still plenty to be excited about at the show! Another first was the new Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which is labeled in this photo as "America's First Ever Hybrid Minivan." Actually, it's a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), like the Volt above, which can run on electricity obtained by plugging in to the wall as well as on that generated onboard from gasoline like an ordinary hybrid. Appropriately, the Pacifica hybrid sponsored the kids' Play Zone at the show; it was also celebrated with inflatable flying pigs, as I guess it seems to some people like an unlikely platform for this high-efficiency technology. However, our dozen-year-old Saturn minivan is about due for replacement, and I for one will give this new PHEV option very serious consideration as its successor!

Toyota Prius Prime PHEV

Another vehicle with pretty good odds of ending up in my garage, and in those of a lot of other people, is the new Prius Prime. Toyota introduced a PHEV version of the Prius early on, barely a year after the Volt and Nissan Leaf began the Revenge of the Electric Car era at the end of 2010; however, it was discontinued when the fourth generation of the Prius was introduced for the 2016 model year. The 2017 Prius Prime now offers over twice the all-electric range of the earlier Prius PHEV, at 25 miles, which would suit my wife's commute nicely; it also has a more powerful electric drivetrain which, if the battery is full, can go up to 83 MPH on electricity before the gasoline motor kicks in. Toyota sells huge numbers of the non-plug-in Prius, and with various PHEV incentives the cost of the Prius Prime will actually be below that of the base model Prius! This has led many to expect that the vehicle will rocket to the top of the plug-in sales charts in very short order. Between this and the 200-mile battery-only EVs, things should get very interesting.

Toyota Mirai and Prius Primes

Here are some blue Prius Primes available outside the show for test drives. The black vehicle is a Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle (FCV), which became only the second such vehicle I've driven (the first was the GM HydroGen3 minivan at the Electric Vehicle Symposium in 2003). My family's Prius is a second-generation 2008 model; I've never driven the newer versions, but I understand that the dashboard power-flow display in the Mirai is very similar to that for the third-generation Prius (the Mirai that I drove was built in 2015). Toyota has benefited from its long experience of building hybrids in pulling together the Mirai; I learned at the Honolulu Auto Show several months earlier that the power control unit is from the Prius, and the battery from the Camry hybrid. Interestingly, all versions of the Prius except the base model Two are now using lithium-ion batteries instead of the original nickel metal hydride (NiMH), but the Mirai is still equipped with NiMH (as are the Prius c, Prius v, and hybrid Camry).

At the Honolulu Auto Show, I also learned from Toyota spokeswoman Maggie Clark that the Mirai was coming to Hawaii as the second state after California, with seven cars already on Oahu as of March! (Sorry I didn't write up that show; I got distracted by the departure of Solar Impulse 2 from Hawaii and the unveiling of the Tesla Model 3.) As far as I can determine, there is only one hydrogen refueling station on the island, on a military base; I will keep asking around, and will report when I learn anything new. She said the plan is to place 3000 Mirais in California in the first three years, and 20,000 in the U.S. by 2020; with a big spike of deliveries in August 2016, Toyota is about on pace to meet the first of these milestones.

Honda Clarity ride and drive

Honda also brought their new Clarity FCV to the auto show, and had them outside for test drives as well. The 2017 Clarity will start being leased in more-than-prototype numbers in a month or so; the similar-looking FCX Clarity was introduced several years ago, but I understand that only a few dozen were put on the road. The 2017 model drops the "FCX", as the "X" stood for "experimental"; the FCX name was shared with the 2002 vehicle that was the first fuel-cell vehicle I ever saw, at the 2002 Los Angeles Auto Show. Because Honda couldn't pull another Clarity off a dealer's lot yet if a vehicle at the show got T-boned, the Honda reps at this show had orders to stop giving test drives when it started raining; I was a little late to catch them after I drove the Mirai. The Clarity will also be produced in plug-in versions, both battery-only and (gasoline) PHEV, with more information available in mid-2017.

I was sad to note the absence from the Honda display of an old friend, the Civic powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), which has been around since 1998. As with the plug-in Prius for the 2016 model year, the CNG Civic was left behind when the new generation was introduced with this model year; I hope that, like the Prius Prime, an even better version returns to the road soon!

Hyundai Ioniq and other AFVs

The first vehicle that greeted me when I walked into the South Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center was another FCV, the Hyundai Tucson, at the back of this photo. Hyundai says this is "the world's first mass-produced fuel-cell vehicle"; I'm not sure what Toyota has to say about that, but I saw it at the same auto show two years earlier where I first saw the Mirai. Like the Clarity, and unlike the Mirai, the Tucson is only leased, not sold; all three offer free fuel, up to $15,000, for three years (presumably the automakers expect the price to come down below the present very unattractive $10 per gasoline-gallon equivalent by then). This display was an example of something of which I saw a lot at this show: some automakers are starting to produce enough different plug-in and related models that they can collect them into a nice large grouping. Next to the Tucson FCV at the rear is the Sonata PHEV, and up front are a couple of examples of the brand new Ioniq line. Like the Honda Clarity, this will be available in three forms, here a battery EV, a hybrid, and a PHEV; the EV and hybrid will be available in February, with the PHEV appearing in summer. The vehicle in the foreground is a race-modified version of the hybrid, which set a new land speed record for such vehicles of 158 MPH. Of course, I think back to the GM Impact, the prototype that led to the EV1, of which an example set an electric speed record of 183 MPH over twenty years ago...

BMW iPerformance

Another such grouping was in the BMW area, where their plug-in vehicles were gathered under the designation "BMW iPerformance." In the foreground are the new 330e and 740e xDrive PHEVs, with the i3, i8, and PHEV X5 xDrive40e behind them. Mercedes Benz also had their S 550e and new C 350e PHEVs at the front of their display, and Ford had a lineup all together of their C-MAX and Fusion hybrids and PHEVs and their Focus EV, similar to what I saw at this show two years earlier.

Tesla display

Tesla had a display area of their own for the first time at this auto show (I saw them at the 2015 Honolulu Auto Show), with a couple of Model S sedans and a Model X SUV. The old-skool Airstream trailer, where they displayed paint and trim samples, signed people up for test drives, etc., was hooked up to the Model X to illustrate its trailering capabilities.

Volkswagen I.D. virtual reality

Volkswagen had a virtual gathering, with the 2017 e-Golf on stage next to a virtual reality simulation of the forthcoming battery-electric I.D., with lines long enough that I didn't take time to check it out. The prototype, which is planned to come out in a few years, will have its U.S. debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2017. The Chevrolet Bolt debuted at that show a year earlier; as vehicles get more electrified and electronic-ified, I wonder if that will become a trend.

Kia Niro

The increasing numbers of plug-in vehicles are getting so that I can't show them all without this webpage becoming inordinately long; my feet hurt from several hours of walking around the show to see them all. Good problems to have! And that's without even mentioning the large number of electric and fuel-cell concept vehicles and of three-wheel vehicles, including some vehicles that fell in both categories. Or the electrified classic Volkswagens from Zelectric Motors. Or the full-size TIE Fighter, attended by Imperial Stormtroopers, that was there to promote the "Star Wars: Rogue One" limited edition of the Nissan Rogue!

I'll just show a few interesting new plug-in vehicles to close out this report. Above is the new Kia Niro, a compact SUV (sized between the Soul and Sorrento) that is Kia's first dedicated hybrid product line. The Niro hybrid, and a PHEV based on the Optima, will be available in January, with a PHEV Niro to follow in 2018.

Mini Countryman PHEV

Here is the Mini Countryman PHEV; I understand they also have a battery-only EV in the works. There was a Mini EV a few years ago, but it was a limited test project; it doesn't even show up in the InsideEVs tabulation of plug-in vehicles in the U.S. since 2010.

Jaguar I-PACE concept EV

Finally, this is the Jaguar I-PACE, a concept SUV that is intended to enter production in late 2018, as a battery EV with 220 miles of range. It was displayed under a large banner saying "Jaguar Electrifies / Available 2018". In the background, lifted up against the wall, is a car they've been racing on the electric Formula E circuit.

All in all, it was a very encouraging show from an alternative-fuels standpoint. I, and many, many others, have long argued that promoting alternative fuels makes sense regardless of one's political views; that doesn't mean that advances are immune to politics, of course, and the winds have shifted dramatically of late. CARB rules require larger automakers to put enough vehicles on the road with zero tailpipe emissions (or to accumulate equivalent credits through various mechanisms) to add up to 2% of their sales for the 2018 model year in California and the nine other states that have adopted its rules, with the percentage rising after that. This is the same percentage that the original California Zero-Emission Vehicle rules had required for the 1998 model year! So there have already been dramatic delays in the electrification of transport. While we can hope that the momentum that has been established is enough that it will survive on its own, even if the political push behind it disappears, those of us who have been paying attention to alternative-fueled vehicles for a decade or two will be watching to see if automakers' commitments falter in the coming years.

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new 27 November 2016