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Gloom and vroom at the Los Angeles Auto Show

The Detroit Three have a subdued presence at the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, but other automakers are still rolling out new models.

  • transportation, business, shopping and ownership concept - customer and salesman shaking hands outside

Los Angeles – Judging from the traffic in this city, drivers here are just sucking it up while their cars are sucking it back.

In Photos: 2008 L.A. Auto Show

The Santa Monica Freeway is five lanes in either direction, all stopped, tail lights looking like they stretch all the way to Phoenix.

Gas is pricier here (around $2.31 U.S. per American gallon, or 71 cents Canadian per litre) than in Detroit ($2/63 cents).

But that’s still a buck a gallon less than a month ago and way less than we pay at home, so let the driving begin. Again.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the very existence of the domestic auto industry appears to be hanging in the balance over on the other coast, as the U.S. Congress debates financial assistance for what used to be called the Big Three.

Not that Los Angelenos seem to care – the auto fleet out here seems largely Japanese and German.

Telling, perhaps, that before the Los Angeles Auto Show opened to the media, General Motors cancelled its planned press conference and the expected reveals of the Cadillac CTS Coupe and Buick LaCrosse (Allure for us).

And during the first press day, the lights were off at the Chrysler stand. And nobody was home.

The L.A. show used to try to compete with Detroit at the start of the new year.

But Detroit is still Motor City, and carmakers – even the Japanese and German ones – generally preferred to preview new models there.

By moving its date to mid-November, Los Angeles pre-empts Detroit and gets the good stuff first, as illustrated by the big roster of significant new model introductions here this year.

John LeBlanc covers the green side of the field today on page W20; I’ll précis the conventionally-powered models.

The most significant newbie, for the Canadian market anyway, is the new Mazda3. The current model is popular back home and, in the eyes of most critics, is still the best car in its class despite being five model years old.

The new one is a bit larger, roomier inside, and is said to be even better to drive (we’ll be driving it in a couple of days and will report back next week).

But “grown up” seems to be the key phrase describing this car, with more power from 2.0 litre (148 hp) or 2.5 litre (167 hp) four-cylinder engines, five- or six-speed manual transmissions or a five-speed automatic, and such standard or available luxury features as push-button start, self-levelling bi-xenon headlights, power driver’s seat with memory and a Bose 10-speaker sound system.

Only the four-door sedan is being shown now; the four-door hatch will be along shortly. They go on sale early next year, branded as 2010 model year cars.

Despite Ford divesting itself of a big chunk of Mazda this week, the intertwining of their products will remain for now. The new Mazda3, for example, is the first product off Ford’s global C-Segment platform that will spawn a new Focus next year.

Meanwhile, Ford is putting on a brave face with the 2010 Mustang. Its most iconic model also shares a provenance with Mazda – it is built in the same plant as the Mazda6 in Flat Rock, Mich.

The exterior, new except for the coupe’s roofline, is sleeker, more aggressive, yet unmistakably Mustang.

But the biggest improvement is in the interior, where higher-quality materials and improved execution are evident.

Increased power, standard electronic stability control and reduced noise, vibration and harshness are the mechanical highlights.

Ford has also reworked its (again, Mazda-based) mid-size sedan line: Ford Fusion, Lincoln MKZ and Mercury Milan (which we don’t get).

Face-lifted sheet metal, revised powertrains, upgraded interior and more refined suspensions should help on the showroom floor.

Nissan rewrites the ancient marketing adage for the all-new 370Z sports car: it’s lower, wider – and shorter.

Yep, by 70 mm overall, and 200 mm in wheelbase, in the name of greater agility.

Lighter too, with aluminum doors and wheels. They even carved a kilo and a half out of the sound system.

The always-great V6 engine, now displacing 3.7 litres and producing 332 horsepower, is bolted either to a seven-speed automatic or a new six-speed manual with what Nissan calls “SynchroRev Match.” As you downshift, the car automatically blips the throttle to match engine revs to the predicted new road speed. Works on upshifts, too.

We drive this car in a couple of weeks and will let you know if the promise of its sleeker styling and better-finished interior is delivered.

At the other end of the practicality spectrum is the Nissan Cube. A more accurate product name has never been employed in the car business.

Intended to be the hippest thing in town, the Cube has room for five, decent performance and economy from its 1.8-litre four, and ceiling fabric that contains concentric ripples emanating from the centrally-located dome light.

Um, sure.

On the Infiniti side, a folding hardtop version of the G37 is predictably more gorgeous top-down than top-up, but it’s always that way.

Lexus launched its all-new RX350 and 450h hybrid crossovers at L.A. But when the wraps were pulled off, it was clear the engineers didn’t mess with success – you’d need a trainspotter’s eye to note the differences between old and new models.

Slightly larger, with slightly more room and slightly more power, and slightly more ratios in the gas-engined V6’s automatic transmission (six versus seven), it shows evolution, rather than revolution.

A new double-wishbone rear suspension should provide a welcome improvement in ride comfort.

The financial crisis should make things tough at the top of the automotive food chain, but at least one firm – Lamborghini – continues to set global sales records.

Mind you, its idea of a record is only 2,406 cars, the total for 2007, a number that everyone in the company can quote from heart and which, despite the money-markets meltdown, it expects to exceed in 2008.

Yes, North American sales are down, but emerging markets like China, India and Russia more than compensate.

A new Gallardo convertible, dubbed LP 560-4 Spyder, has a horizontal-motif rear end to emphasize its width and low profile.

A new 5.2-litre 560-horsepower V10 engine offers 40 more horses and 18 per cent lower fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

Maybe this car should be in LeBlanc’s environmental report.

It’s harder, perhaps, to put any green spin on the Bentley Azure T convertible – unless maybe you order yours in British racing green (they will paint it any colour you want).

The 500-horsepower twin-turbo V8 consumes gas about as conspicuously as it can be consumed., but you’ll sure look good doing it.

Wheels’ chief auto reviewer Jim Kenzie can be reached at jim@jimkenzie.com

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