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2012 Infiniti JX (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)
2012 Infiniti JX (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Driving It Home

Finally, an upbeat mood at the L.A. auto show Add to ...

Upbeat. That's how I’d describe the tone here after two press days at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

In past years I’ve been at this show when product news took a back seat to… how about the untimely firing of a General Motors CEO (Fritz Henderson two years ago)? And I’ve been to this show when times were so tough at Chrysler, well, they didn’t even turn on the lights over any of the company’s meagre displays.

I’ve been here when the products unveilings were few and far between. And I’ve been to this show when all the news was about “green” cars and while that’s a laudable part of the car business, it’s not all of it.

This year I really felt a positive vibe. The buzz coming from car companies was cautious but also confident in that most seem to believe in their new wares, Most are also companies that feel battle tested and sure of a future after having weathered the fallout of a global financial crisis – and perhaps another one unfolding in Europe -- and all sorts of other calamities.

As one senior Nissan executive told me, “We know crisis management and we’ve proved we can do it.”

Nissan’s Infiniti luxury brand was one of many here talking about growth and expansion and new models and a bright future. Infiniti unwrapped the new JX large crossover and we can expect it to go head-to-head with the likes of Audi’s Q7 early next spring. This is a good looking wagon and I am predicting a starting price less than $50,000. The Germans are going to have a tough time matching that.

Infiniti has plans to expand globally and sell 500,000 cars a year, which would be more than three times what it is selling now. The JX is just the start of a raft of new products from Infiniti, but it needs a diesel engine option. Other than that looks good.

Cadillac has a strong presence here, too. The EXT large sedan hits showrooms around the middle of next year, finally giving Caddy a big car to replace the discontinued DTS and STS. This is a very hot-looking car for the moneyed classes.

General Motors’ North American president, Mark Reuss, had the look of a man with zest for launching new models that make money, rather than retrenching and cost cutting and explaining why a taxpayer bailout was a good idea. We can now see tangible evidence of why it was a good idea.

Reuss, whose father was once president of GM, is a true car guy, an engineer by training. I asked him who is in charge at GM, the car guys or the accountants. He hedged a bit, launching into a tale about how the company’s new chief financial officer is a budding boy racer, one who might soon be giving driving lessons to some of GM’s engineers. His point: even our new finance guy is committed to the products, not just crunching numbers and doing deals and paying back taxpayers.

The Ford people were pumped about the Escape small crossover coming to Canada early next year. The current Escape has looked the same for a decade – boxy, boxy, boxy. But it’s cheap and that makes it a best seller in Canada.

Ford of Canada is now going to have a pretty sexy looking little Escape wagon, one with three engine choices and one riding on a platform adapted from the Ford Focus compact car. Here’s the kicker: Ford of Canada expects 90 per cent of 2013 Escape buyers to go for the powerful and fuel efficient EcoBoost four-banger, with its direct fuel injection and turbocharging. Interesting.

Mazda was touting its new CX-5 compact crossover which goes on sale in the early spring of next year. Don Romano, the Mazda Canada president, pointed to the CX-5 and said, “There is a car made exactly for Canada.” It looks good and will be the first Mazda vehicle to come with a full suite of SKYACTIV fuel saving innovations. Romano promises lots of “zoominess,” too.

I left the show today thinking that Los Angeles has become a serious auto show, one where mainstream Asian auto makers come to make big announcements (Hyundai Azera, Honda Fit electric vehicle to name two). Moreover, Detroit’s auto makers apparently have figured out that California really does matter and they should give this show its due – not remain biased towards their own hometown Detroit auto show coming up in January.

As for the Germans, they seem more than ready to put more energy into future L.A. auto shows. As one executive put it, “We’d rather come here in November than go to Detroit in January.”

Truer words were not spoken on the show floor.

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