Electric cars take back seat in LA

It adds, shall we say, just a small degree of difficulty to the job of presenting the keynote speech at a major industry gathering when your new boss/owner/the-guy-who-signs-your-paycheques says that you — and your entire management team — is full of the proverbial bull patooties.

In a public dressing down seldom seen in the automotive arena, the president of Geely, Volvo’s new owner, publicly stated that Volvo’s management had it, well, all wrong. According to Automotive News, Geely president Li Shufu stated, in terms uncategoric, that Volvo’s management were wrong in their vision for the future of the brand and that the Swedish automaker should transform itself from a near-luxury marque for the quirky and safety minded to a direct competitor to Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

Of course, this could be all part of a master plan lending weight to new Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby’s contention that Volvo belongs “in the top league of the premium manufacturers.” That Jacoby is the former head of Volkswagen’s U.S. distribution arm, another company with pretensions of moving its brand upscale, just lends credence to the contention the new owners are merely trying to “encourage” reluctant Swedish management — who want to keep Volvo keen to its roots of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars — to broaden their horizons.

However, despite Li’s contention that the future lies in larger, more luxurious cars, the Los Angeles Auto Show, which opened to media last week, is all about conservation. But, unlike the recent Paris exhibition, which featured all things electric, the California gathering of the world’s automakers seems to point to a refinement of the conventional internal combustion engine for a world gone green.

Over at the Ford display and with the addition of the 2012 Focus to its lineup, the automaker is loudly trumpeting four vehicles that achieve 40 miles per U.S. gallon. The others are the Fiesta SFE, Fusion Hybrid and the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid. This feat, says Ford, is more than any other automaker. Combined with the pumping of the company’s turbocharged EcoBoost formula (in the guise of a twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6) to its traditionally V8-loving pickup owners, Ford is pushing green harder than ever, even when focusing on traditionally power-hungry clientele.

Not to be outdone, Hyundai announced its new Elantra will hit the 40-mpg mark. However, unlike the previously mentioned Ford Fiesta SFE — and the Chevrolet Cruze Eco — which have only one specific trim each achieving this new benchmark of frugality, all 1.8L-powered Elantras will achieve a 40-mpg rating on the highway.

Meanwhile, the massively hyped (you would be primping it up, too, if you had seen how barren Chrysler’s R&D cupboard was but a year ago) Fiat 500 finally seems ready for prime time with a softer ride and, perhaps the most important modification of all, cup holders large enough for supersized Big Gulps. Expect the almost-as-cute-as-a-Mini 500 to be in North American showrooms by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, General Motors is resurrecting its much maligned “mild” hybrid concept with the 2012 LaCrosse. All 2.4L versions of the new Buick will feature eAssist, a rebranded version of the belt-alternator starter (BAS) systems first introduced in 2006. Unlike those previous, largely ineffective designs, the new systems now have the power (11 kilowatts — or 15 horsepower — compared with the previous system’s paltry two kilowatts) to significantly affect the La-Crosse’s performance and fuel economy. The General claims that the 182-horsepower in-line four now averages 37 miles per gallon on the highway (an increase of seven mpg) and 25 mpg (up six mpg) in the city.

Cadillac, meanwhile, has taken the wraps off an Urban Luxury Concept (ULC) whose slick hatchback shape may not have been radical, but with a little three-cylinder engine that certainly is. That it is also smaller and shorter than a current Mini Cooper says that automakers are already gearing up to meet America’s stringent new CAFE fuel economy standards (thanks to its mild hybrid system Cadillac boasts the ULC can achieve 65 mpg on the highway).

Indeed, this rampant bifurcation is certainly the issue the automotive industry will face for the next decade. Whether it be Ford looking to offer an F-150 with superior fuel economy while still being able to tow 5,000 kilograms, a Cadillac that is small, sassy and, most importantly, fuel conscious while still being a Cadillac, or the seemingly disparate demands, as illustrated by Jacoby’s quandary, of a Chinese market that wants larger, more luxurious Volvos while the rest of the world, according to the new CEO, demands more traditional Scandinavian simplicity and elegance, automakers face the impossible task of satisfying all of the people all of the time.

Photograph by: bl1/ZUMA, Keystone Press