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the green highway

No car event plays the "green" card so blatantly and persistently as the Los Angeles Auto Show.

To give California its due, it has been a leader for 30 years in tough environmental regulation that has forced the auto industry to clean up its act. But the City of Los Angeles and its mayor use the auto show to trumpet their baseless claim of being the centre of the "green" car universe. Powered by the flim-flam of the Hollywood publicity machine, they've turned the Green Car of The Year award at the L.A. Auto Show into a news event of the first order in the U.S. media. This year, however, they got it all so terribly wrong.

The five Green Car finalists were recently announced and they are all yawners. There are glaring omissions from the list and the ones that did make it all feature worthwhile but unexciting technology that we have seen before. The choices are so conventionally similar that I don't know how the judges, led by late-night TV talk-show host Jay Leno, can declare a winner without flipping a coin.

I don't mean to disparage the finalists as all are much better than the average car and they are: the Dodge Dart Aero, Ford Fusion, Ford C-MAX, Mazda CX-5 and the Toyota Prius c. I'll summarize their benefits before I tell you what's wrong about the L.A. Green Car of the Year award.

  • The Dodge Dart Aero is expected to get 41 mpg in U.S. government tests but all cars get far less in real-world use than their official rating. However, the Dart’s engine does it without expensive and hard-to-repair turbocharging. Nevertheless, this economy car requires premium fuel.
  • The Ford C-MAX is an interesting little crossover that will eventually offer both hybrid and Ford’s first plug-in hybrid models. It’s going right after Toyota Prius customers.
  • The second Ford on the list is the Ford Fusion. This attractive mid-size will also will be offered in conventional gasoline, gas-electric hybrid and plug-in models next year.
  • The Mazda CX-5 SkyActiv is a compact crossover with good fuel economy. Mazda does it with a non-turbo, four-cylinder gasoline engine and weight-reduction technology.
  • The Toyota Prius c is the smaller, less expensive, Prius that Toyota should have built in the first place. The original Prius was underpowered, this one is more so.

These are all worthy cars but they're all plain white bread with a few vitamins added.

If L.A. believes it's the centre of the "green" car world, it ought to be more serious about exploring advanced technologies and concepts. Award officials defend themselves by stating they're looking for "affordable mass-market products that provide drivers full functionality and mainstream appeal." In other words, just like Hollywood, they're looking for the lowest common denominator and something that sells.

It would be more interesting if the Hollywood star-making machine would look beyond what's in the showroom today. An example: the BMW i3, a carbon-fiber, magnesium-aluminum space frame vehicle with all-electric drive. If you start with smart engineers and a clean sheet of paper, you can come up with something as revolutionary as this.

Another example: if you really believe in "green," you must agree that the world needs fewer cars, not more. Car sharing, not car ownership, makes sense, especially to people much younger than the car-mad baby boomers (I just raised my hand). Maybe Daimler's Car2Go rent-by-the-minute fleet being distributed around the world should be Green Car of the Year.

One more example: a "green" car has to be safe and there are brilliant advancements being made in car safety. Perhaps the Volvo XC60 with its great crash scores and City Safety low-speed collision avoidance system, which brakes automatically if it senses an imminent crash. Or the Toyota Highlander, a mid-sized SUV with airbags everywhere and every computer-driven driving assist I can think of.

The more credible "green" car award is the World Green Car, which is handed out at the New York International Auto Show each spring. This is a serious evaluation effort by 64 jurors made up of journalists and auto experts from around the world, none of whom have the name recognition of Leno (who, by the way, knows a great deal about cars).

Last year, they came up with the Mercedes-Benz S 250 CDI. This is the S-Class limo with a four-cylinder diesel turbo. I guess if you can get rich people into a four-banger, you're making progress.

There are better "green" car awards shows than L.A., but I'm not happy with any of them. I'm waiting for "The Really Out There with Technology and Ideas You've Never Heard of Green Car Awards." Until that happens, I won't bore you with any more award stories.