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The Fiat 500e debuts at the L.A. Auto Show. Who knew an EV could be sexy? (Chris Carlson/AP)
The Fiat 500e debuts at the L.A. Auto Show. Who knew an EV could be sexy? (Chris Carlson/AP)

LOS ANGELES AUTO SHOW

L.A. auto show: the good, the bad and the sexy Add to ...

Every big auto show I visit leaves me amazed and sometimes astounded at the ideas, ambitions and executions of these big auto companies – all in the cause of convincing the buying public to commit great sums to a new ride.

Take this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, an extravaganza that has evolved from what Mazda USA president Jim O’Sullivan called a “trim and colour show,” where the big news was often nothing more than a new bumper and three new paint jobs. Last week at the Los Angeles Convention Centre, on the other hand, the world’s biggest car companies turned out 50 global introductions.

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“Everything here is a global introduction,” said O’Sullivan, whose own Mazda announced that the 2014 Mazda6 going on sale in the spring will be the first car in North America from a Japanese car company to be available with a diesel engine.

As I trudged through this massive show, stand to stand, what struck me was how each auto maker took its own tack on selling the message of a new model, new features, new technologies, new designs and new ideas about the future of the automobile.

At Porsche, for instance, CEO Matthias Mueller himself was there to unveil an all-new third-generation Cayman sports car. Mueller mostly played it straight, the dignified German car company executive there to sell a lower, longer, lighter, faster, more efficient, more powerful two-seat sport coupe.

Porsche, of course, is on a massive roll, so Mueller and Porsche could be all dignified and composed for the introduction. Let the car speak for itself, in other words: the Cayman is powered by a 2.7-litre engine with 275 hp and, with the Sport Chrono package, it accelerates from a standstill to 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds. Meanwhile, the 3.4-litre engine in the Cayman S produces 325 hp, which means with the PDK transmission and Sport Chrono package, this version sprints from 0-100 km/h in 4.7.

The Cayman has long been my favourite Porsche and both Mueller and I will be revved to see it arrive at Canadian dealerships in the spring. But at least as interesting is how Porsche has changed from a small-volume sports car company, to a big-volume car company with ambitions to sell 200,000 vehicles a year by 2018 if not sooner. Most of them will be Cayenne SUVs and Panamerica sedans.

So, I asked Mueller, isn’t Porsche now in danger of losing its magic by becoming just another volume car brand?

“Total new-car sales in the world will be 64 million this year; 200,000 is not so much,” he answered with the confident smile of a man whose company is making bundles of money, though the battle for independence Porsche is waging inside the sprawling Volkswagen Group must be interesting.

Mueller says his bosses at the top of the Group understand Porsche’s special place and they won’t muck up the brand by chasing sales volume with an unending parade of new models. Really? What about that small SUV called the Macan coming in 2014?

Elsewhere, the story was different. Hyundai America CEO John Krafcik was surrounded by a scrum of reporters who were not the slightest bit interested in talking about what had just been revealed on stage: a design study based on the Veloster called the C3 Roll Top Concept and the production version of the new three-row, six-/seven-passenger Santa Fe X SUV.

Where there’s a mob of reporters, there’s usually a scandal of some sort and so it was in L.A. that Krafcik found himself answering questions about the recent admission from Hyundai and its sister company Kia that together they sold more than one million 2011-13 vehicles with overstated fuel economy ratings. The focus of the inquisition: will Hyundai suffer from a credibility gap with customers that could turn into long-term damage to the brands?

I was in the heart of that sweaty scrum. Krafcik gamely took my questions, and others, stating that Hyundai will do all in its power to make it right, to take care of its customers. But it looked painful for him. He was doing his duty, taking on all comers, but at an auto show where he’s usually selling good news about growing sales, new models and technologies, this time he was dealing with a scandal. No fun.

At Ford’s Lincoln brand, which is continuing its 20-year resuscitation, well, it’s a shame the public didn’t see what I witnessed on the first press day: a stunning display of classic Lincolns, including a remarkable Mark II from 1956. By the time this show opened to the public last Friday, Lincoln had replaced all the classic cars with a gaudy display of various versions of the all-new MKZ – the first Lincoln to emerge from the brand’s all-new design studio.

At the stand, I ran into Dave Mondragon, the former head of Ford of Canada and now marketing director for both Ford and Lincoln in the United States. He talked about the Lincoln revival now under way and his main message was this: the senior executives at Ford, from CEO Allan Mullaly on down, are firmly behind this Lincoln remake. This time around, Lincoln will get the resources to separate its vehicles from Ford’s. In other words, Lincolns, and the service experience that comes with buying one, will be special.

As we chatted, it became apparent how big and how small the car business actually is. Up walked Reid Bigland, the CEO of Chrysler Canada who also wears several other hats at the Chrysler Group, including head of the Dodge brand and vice-president of sales for Chrysler in the United States. Bigland and Mondragon became good friends during their years competing in Canada and I was left to the side as they discussed upcoming dinner plans.

So I took off to the Fiat stand where the buzz was all about sex and how it sells cars. Fiat did have some new models on hand, including the Fiat 500e electric, 500 Abarth Cabrio, and 500L wagon. But it was the sex-soaked “Seduction” commercial being shown that captured the crown of ink-stained wretches on hand.

Here was an Italian lesson in how to hype a battery car, the 500e: put an obviously stunning woman into the passenger seat of an EV, have her zip up the top of a racing suit with nothing on underneath, and watch her enjoy a test of the 500e’s 80-mile range and 10-second acceleration time. The test stops short when the car door flings open to find this lovely, lovely woman passionately kissing the now-shirtless male driver. Look for more of the same in upcoming Fiat ads.

The point is, Fiat global brand chief Olivier Francois has long touted the power of sex appeal. Why can’t eco-friendly also be eco-sexy, he asked, while the image of a Viagra pill highlighted his presentation. Good question, indeed.

The show had other important introductions, but none as entertaining as Fiat’s. Toyota had the latest RAV4, also to be built in Canada, by the way, just as the current and outgoing one is. Acura had a redesigned RLX and Subaru had the next Forester and Honda showed the refreshed Honda Civic. Chevrolet introduced a battery-powered version of its Spark minicar, but being General Motors, well, the show was low key compared to Fiat’s EV extravaganza.

BMW’s i3 Concept Coupe, a small runabout with crossover styling, will almost surely arrive in showrooms within 18 months, as part of the Munich car company’s push into electric cars. How does $60,000 grab you? Speaking of electrics, Mercedes-Benz had a design study called the Ener-G-Force SUV. This big rig, according to the media bumph, is propelled by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell.

Audi, meanwhile, had diesel-powered versions of its A6, A7 and A8 sedans and its Q5 and Q7 SUVs. And Volkswagen put some fun into is lineup with the new Beetle Convertible. Oh, let’s not forget that Ford is onto something fuel-efficient and fun with its 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged Fiesta subcompact – the EcoBoost Fiesta. It looks like a winner.

Other highlights:

  • Mercedes-Benz AMG’s Black Series SLS coupe with 622 horsepower. Stunning and of course very, very fast.
  • Volvo’s Polestar concept: here we have a gussied up S60 sedan with a 508-horsepower motor.
  • Nissan’s 545-horsepower GT-R sports car is coming for 2014. Yes, the GT-R lives.
  • Jaguar’s 550-horsepower, V-8-powered XFR-S sedan is a creamer, apparently the favourite Jag of top ride and handling engineer Mike Price, I was told.

In all this, one thing was crystal clear: As O’Sullivan noted, the days of L.A. being a trim and colour show are all over. Excellent.

*****

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