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Cleaner and faster cars at the L.A. Auto Show

Glaskowsky hits the high points from his visit to the Los Angeles Auto Show.

The Los Angeles Auto Show wraps up this weekend. I drove down to the Los Angeles Convention Center last week to check out the new BMW M3--which I hope to buy next year--and get a look at all the other new cars debuting there.

There were two clear trends at the show: higher performance and increased environmental sensitivity. The best new vehicles show improvements in both areas.

The 2008 BMW M3 sedan
The 2008 BMW M3 sedan BMW AG

The new M3, for example, delivers 24% more power (414 hp!) from its new four-liter V8 along with 8% better gas mileage, along with more interior room than its predecessor and many new features. I had the previous version, a 2002 model, and it was a great car.

Now that the new M3 is available as a four-door sedan, I hope I'll be able to get one next year. The M3 will go on sale in the spring, but for me, there's another issue: I want to get the car through BMW's European Delivery program, which I used for my M3 as well as the 1999 540i that I still drive.

I think European Delivery is the best way to get a BMW--or an Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, Saab, Volvo, or other car available through such a program. There's a special reason to get pick up your new BMW in Munich around the beginning of August--the annual driving school at Germany's Nürburgring racetrack. The school is operated by independent European BMW car clubs, with American participation coordinated through the BMW Car Club of America. I attended this school with my M3 in 2002, and it was just incredible-- the most fun I've ever had in a car. BMW, however, doesn't always offer the European Delivery option on recently introduced models, so I'll just keep my fingers crossed.

The new M3 will sell on the strength of that 17% power increase more than the 8% boost in fuel efficiency. For real fuel economy, we have to look beyond traditional gasoline engines. General Motors, eager to regain the position of sales leadership it lost to Toyota earlier this year, was showing off a wide range of hybrid-powered vehicles, more models capable of running on E85 (blended ethanol/gasoline), and two kinds of electric-powered cars.

The Chevy Volt concept sedan
The Chevy Volt concept sedan General Motors

One of GM's "electric cars" is the Volt concept sedan--which is actually a new type of hybrid. Power is delivered to the wheels exclusively by an electric motor, but the car carries a small internal-combustion engine or hydrogen fuel cell to charge the batteries when needed. This configuration is called a "series hybrid" as opposed to the "parallel hybrid" approach used in Toyota's Prius, where drive power can be provided by an electric motor, a gasoline engine, or both together. The Volt has a much larger battery pack than the Prius, allowing a 40-mile driving range between battery charges, so most commuters can charge the vehicle from AC power overnight and never use the car's engine or fuel cell. GM promises to bring out a production version of Volt by 2010.

GM also showed its Equinox hydrogen fuel-cell car in L.A., a true all-electric design. Although the Equinox design is unlikely to go into production in the next several years due to the lack of hydrogen-fuel infrastructure, GM's Project Driveway will test Equinox in several markets nationwide.

Honda's FCX Clarity fuel-cell car
Honda's FCX Clarity fuel-cell car Honda

Honda will be testing its own fuel-cell car, the FCX Clarity, in 2008.

Honda also has a plan to solve (or at least address) the infrastructure issue by developing a hydrogen generator that can be used at home. The experimental Home Energy Station reforms natural gas into hydrogen, like the system from UTC Power that I wrote about here back in August.

Honda's system can also be used to provide heat and electricity for the home where it's installed. This approach is probably the best hope for hydrogen-powered vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years, since the infrastructure problem would otherwise be very expensive to solve.

Porsche was showing a hybrid drivetrain under development for the Cayenne SUV, which may be the same design Porsche is rumored to be considering for its forthcoming Panamera sedan--I blogged about this rumor in August.

Porsche Cayenne hybrid concept
Porsche Cayenne hybrid concept CNET Networks

The hybrid Cayenne on display in L.A.--the same shown in this CNET photo gallery--was the first I've seen in person that combines the gas engine and electric motor into one assembly--the so-called "integrated starter alternator" design I described in that blog post. The result is a hybrid drivetrain barely any larger than a conventional gas engine. (Batteries not included.)

This type of design is more suitable for high-power vehicles since it works with a gasoline or diesel engine of any size, and offers better parts commonality with traditionally powered vehicles than other hybrid approaches. The engine, motor, and battery pack can all be scaled independently to achieve a desired balance of performance, efficiency, and range.

Incidentally, Porsche was also showing a 107-year-old electric car known as the "Voiturette System Lohner-Porsche" developed by Ferdinand Porsche, father of the founder of the Porsche company. This car was the predecessor of a true gas-electric hybrid developed later in 1900 by adding a pair of gasoline engines and electric generators to drive the car's electric wheel-hub motors.

Saving the planet is all very well and good, but we might as well have fun while we can. I was more interested in the 2008 Porsche 911 GT2, which I would have to say is the best sports car available for under $200,000. Aww, heck, I think it's the best sports car available for under $500,000, too. But if you want to go faster than the GT2's nominal 204 mph top end, there were plenty of options for you at the L.A. Auto Show. One company-- the revived Vector Motors-- was even projecting a 300+ mph top speed for its new WX8 supercar, courtesy of a 2,000-hp engine the company has yet to build. At least that was Jalopnik's take; Autoblog only got the company to promise an 1,850-hp, 275-mph version. Personally, I thought the WX8 looked rough and unfinished.

The Lamborghini Reventón
The Lamborghini Reventón Lamborghini

At the other end of the supercar spectrum was Lamborghini's Reventón. Priced at $1.4 million, only 20 of these cars will be built. It's based on the same mechanical platform as the company's LP640--a 640-hp V12 engine and all-wheel drive delivering a 0-100 kph (0-62 mph) time of 3.4 seconds and a top speed over 211 mph--but over a million dollars more expensive than that model. Admittedly, it has a dramatic new design both inside and out, but it seems to me that the Reventón isn't so much a new model of Lamborghini as it is a test of the company's most loyal customers.

Oh, I'd like to give special recognition to Aston Martin, which distributed its press kit for the show in the form of a hardcover book, not the usual folded cardstock portfolios with loose-leaf press releases handed out by other makers. Wow.