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Green’s the theme in City of Angels

Published November 23, 2012

Next Wednesday, the winner of Volkswagen’s “Think Blue World Championship” — a contest to discover the globe’s most fuel-efficient driver — will be crowned at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

The following day, the “Green Car of the Year” will be announced.

The ceremonies are part of the show’s attempt to brand itself as the greenest exhibition of cars in North America, if not the world.

Given that California is the birthplace of car-crazy culture, and Los Angeles has long been infamous for its sprawling freeways and choking smog, this environmental posture frequently generates derisive laughter or rolling eyeballs.

But that’s old: The state’s story has become much more complex.

Cars still dominate its extravagantly wasteful culture. On the other hand, it has led North America in making them greener.

The smog led California to impose the continent’s toughest emission regulations. And, because it’s such a huge and lucrative market, those rules became the template for the American and Canadian fuel-consumption standards now forcing automakers to make all their products more efficient.

From the arrival of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, California has been North America’s test bed and launch pad for fuel-saving and alternative powertrains.

Los Angeles even has a public transit network that puts Toronto’s to shame.

This mixed bag is reflected in the auto show, open to the public from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9.

Los Angeles ranks high on the annual global circuit of these events, where status depends mainly on the number of world vehicle premiers. This year, it boasts 22 such unveilings, as well as 28 first showings in North America.

Many of these debuts will be on the green side of the ledger. They’ll include plug-in hybrid and all-battery vehicles, as well as highly efficient internal-combustion and “clean diesel” models. As well, older versions of these new technologies will dot the show floor.

“Overall, there will be two dozen all-electric or plug-in electric models at the show, at least a dozen clean-diesel vehicles and nearly 20 . . . with highly advanced four-cylinder gasoline engines,” show organizers say.

On the other hand, they add: “Underscoring the L.A. region’s status as the largest luxury and performance market in the country, of the nearly 50 debuts slated, at least a dozen will come from these categories.”

So, like the state, it’s greener; not green.

The show will also reflect shifts in thinking about fuel-saving vehicles.

Sales of cars powered only by batteries are lagging, while hybrids and efficient gasoline burners are doing well, and plug-in hybrids appear to be taking off. While a couple of notable electric vehicles, GM’s Spark EV and Fiat’s 500e, will be unveiled, most attention will focus on the other options, which allow improved fuel economy for larger vehicles in a market where many still refuse to believe small can be beautiful.

The shift is evident in the five “Green Car” finalists. None are pure EVs, and two — the Dodge Dart Aero and Mazda CX-5 — represent efficient internal combustion, with no electric boost. As the show organizers put it, this choice, “underscores the evolving auto industry’s increasing focus on efficiencies and tailpipe/carbon-dioxide emissions.”

The EV debuts will emphasize that for now — apart from those who can afford the top version of Tesla’s Model S — battery-only technology is restricted to urban driving. That fact was obvious from the start of the EV revival, but manufacturers are increasingly making it a virtue of their electric vehicles.

The two EV trailblazers won’t have new all-battery products in Los Angeles. A revamped Leaf went on sale this week in Japan, but the North American version isn’t ready yet. Mitsubishi’s iMiEV is also to get a 2013 revision, but not in time for the show. The same holds for GM’s plug-in-hybrid Volt.

Mitsubishi, though, will point toward the industry’s shift with a plug-in-hybrid version of its Outlander compact SUV. With the iMiEV selling only by the dozens in North America, spokesperson Roger Yasukawa says the little EV has “served as the foundation to develop the technologies of the future … like the upcoming Outlander,” which lets consumers “make an easier decision for the time being to adopt this vehicle without sacrificing their driving pattern or lifestyles.”

GM’s lone, albeit significant, green offering will be the Spark EV, and the 500e will fill that role for Chrysler/Fiat.

Ford will display its Focus EV, as well as the C-Max and Fusion families of hybrids and Energi plug-in hybrids that are causing a marketplace stir. It will also introduce to North America its one-litre, three-cylinder EcoBoost engine, to be available in the Fiesta compact.

And it will showcase the Transit Connect compact minivan, claimed as the first seven-passenger vehicle to achieve fuel economy of 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres.

Toyota will show its Prius family of hybrids and plug-in hybrids.

Honda will debut the Accord plug-in hybrid.

Mazda, staying out of the electric game, will unveil the 2014 Mazda6, its second model — following the popular CX-5 crossover — to feature the full fuel-sipping SkyActiv internal-combustion technology.

BMW promises the world premier of the coupe version of the i3 luxury city car, and the North American debut of the i8 Spyder plug-in-hybrid sports car.

Volkswagen promises the first “big show” display of its Beetle TDI Clean Diesel and Jetta Turbocharged Hybrid — the car in the “Think Blue” competition.

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