Concepts Take Center Stage

A car show wouldn’t be a car show without a few concept cars — those futuristic, one-off design studies that more than likely will never make their way to production (or even close to it), but are guaranteed to draw a crowd. And the L.A. Auto Show, which officially kicks off on Friday, Dec. 1, has more than its fair share of stunning concepts. In fact, early reports are that the concept cars are stealing attention away from the numerous (and admittedly impressive) production cars being introduced this week. It’s easy to see why — they’re truly one of a kind. Check these out.

Mazda Nagare Concept

Mazda calls the Nagare (pronounced na-gah-reh) “the first indication of Mazda’s future design direction.” If that’s true, we’re on board — where do we sign up?? Granted, it might not exactly fit in with the other vehicles in the parking lot at the local Walmart, but that’s beside the point. The Nagare was designed to embody the word flow, and it fully succeeds. Access to the cabin is provided by two doors that hinge at the top, so they lift upward like a bird’s wings. The driver sits front and center in the vehicle, facing an instrument panel that looks like something right out of the space shuttle. The steering wheel is a semi-circular affair, almost resembling well-padded bicycle handle bars. And passengers sit in the ultimate sculpted seats behind the driver. Supposedly this is what vehicles will look like around the year 2020. If so, we can’t wait.

Guigaro Concept Mustang

The quintessential American car gets an Italian makeover by Fabrizio Giugiaro, son of the famed automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. The visual cues, especially in the rear, are reminiscent of the fastback Mustangs of the late ’60s, though this car is wider than the current production model and longer in the front. It also features hinge-up doors, though these are similar to the Lamborghini Diablo’s gullwing doors. The dash looks like it might have come from a ’50s-era Cadillac, with its chrome circular gauges, and the exterior orange color scheme is carried over to the interior, where the four-seater features deep bucket seats with horsehair headrests — what else would you expect from a Mustang?

Porsche possibly putting the Panamera into production in 2009

The legendary sports car company Porsche is stepping into previously unexplored territory with the creation of the Porsche Panamera, the first sedan-style Porsche to be put into production. Of course, this might be a bit premature, as the Panamera is technically still in the concept arena, but Porsche has talked about plans to release the Panamera to auto shows in 2009 and into production afterward. They are looking at producing 20,000 per year after 2009.

Opinions vary about this new vehicle in the Porsche line-up, ranging from disgust by Porsche purists to hopefulness from family folk. Personally, I think this bold move is a brilliant one on Porsche’s part, allowing them to break into a previously untapped market. And it doesn’t look like they’re going to lose much of what makes a Porsche a Porsche in crossing over.

What does the Panamera have that makes it a Porsche? Well, first things first. What kind of engine is this baby going to have? Will the extra two doors slow it down at all? Well, rest easy, speed fans. While the exact engines are not nailed down, all of the options look good. A V8 with 350 hp, a 3.5 liter V8 with 300 hp, and/or a V10 (the same one found in the Carrera GT) that cranks out a whopping 700 hp will power you and three passengers. Not only that, but Porsche is exploring a hybrid option with a six-cylinder engine and a 60-watt electric motor.

Porsche is being a bit close-lipped about the car, probably in part because they haven’t nailed all of the details down yet, but I think it can be assumed that anything Porsche creates will be of the highest quality. The initial artist sketches show a sleek, suave car that would certainly function as a family car, but wouldn’t be missing any of the glory that is Porsche. However, early spy shots of the test models show a less elegant, possibly disappointing body style, a rip-off of the 911. With luck Porsche has not finished the body, and 2009 will herald a Porsche sedan worthy of the name and sketches.

Cadillac Polishes Up Platinum Series

It’s always nice to see Cadillac go upscale, which is where it belongs, of course. Its latest effort to put some shine on its luxury status is the Platinum Series, which includes limited-edition versions of the automaker’s XLR Roadster and STS and DTS Sedans. Inspired by the Escalade ESV Platinum SUV offered from 2004 to 2006, the new Cadillac Platinum Series vehicles are distinguished by their hand-crafted interiors, special exterior colors and luxury features.

Cadillac makes generous use of chrome, wood and leather in the vehicles’ interiors. For instance, the XLR features leather door trim, leather on the upper instrument panel, olive ash burl wood trim, Alcantara suede on the visors and pillars, and a Cashmere interior color. Liquid Amethyst was used for the exterior paint. Bright chrome finish for the grille and 15-spoke, 18-inch wheels are also part of the package.

The STS Platinum Sedan comes with a Glacier Gold exterior finish, chrome accents on the doors and instrument panel, olive ash burl wood accents, and a leather-wrapped, heated steering wheel, while the DTS Platinum Sedan gets a Tuscany leather interior, hand-sewn leather on the instrument panel, leather door trim, suede visors, and an Ebony exterior finish.

The XLR and STS Platinum vehicles will be available in the first quarter of 2007, while the DTS Platinum will be available in August 2007.

Volkswagen Tiguan Compact SUV Makes Its Debut

Scheduled to reach showrooms in just about a year, the Volkswagen Tiguan compact SUV made its “exceptionally early world premiere” at the L.A. Auto Show on Wednesday, Nov. 29. And it’s pretty big news, since it is powered by what VW calls “the diesel of the future.” Officially known as the Clean TDI, the Tiguan’s diesel engine reduces the output of nitrogen oxides by up to 90 percent, compared to a typical engine, ensuring that it will meet the “strictest emissions standards in the world,” according to Volkswagen. The engine is also one of the first automotive components to appear under the BLUETEC banner, a partnership formed by Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes-Benz to create clean, low-consumption cars and SUVs.

The goal with the Tiguan was to design a compact SUV that appears muscular, powerful, and capable, with design cues lifted from the VW’s Touareg and an overall look that is distinctively a Volkswagen. According to lead designer Klaus Bischoff, Volkswagen did that by giving the Tiguan a long hood, an upright position, broad bumpers, high wheel arches, and headlights that merge with the dark-anodized metallic front grille. The vehicle also sports distinctive 19-inch wheels, which feature orange radial stripes that match the Tiguan’s paint color.

For the Tiguan’s interior, Volkswagen use a black, silver and orange color scheme. The leather seats, door trim and leather steering wheel are black, while instruments and door handles are silver. All leather seams are orange, and the orange tire stripe pattern is repeated down the centers of the seats. A wide panoramic sunroof helps brighten the dark interior. Volkswagen plans to unveil additional information about the Tiguan early in 2007.

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe

Nissan Altima Coupe

Still on a high from their recent success with the redesigned Altima, Nissan is set to introduce an Altima coupe for 2008. The Altima coupe made its debut at the 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show and is scheduled to go on sale mid-2007. Nissan hopes the coupe will ride on the coattails of the best-selling sedan and attract a younger buyer to the brand.

The Altima has never had a coupe in its lineup. In fact, Nissan, which has a number of different coupes in its history, hasn’t offered a coupe since the late ‘90s, when the 200 and 240SX were discontinued. The Z doesn’t count—it’s in a totally different league from likely Altima coupe competitors, like the Honda Accord.

The Altima coupe is noticeably different in appearance from its big brother; while the Altima still looks like a bread and butter sedan, the coupe has long, sloping lines and is significantly shorter. Inside, Nissan has included all kinds of nifty gadgets, like Bluetooth connectivity, a rear-view camera, an “Intelligent Key” system, and a navigation screen.

The coupe will share the same four-cylinder and V6 engine options as the sedan, but there are mutterings that a souped-up version may appear near the end of next year.

Read more about the 2008 at Car and Driver’s Web site:

How the Altima coupe fits into Nissan’s financial picture:

BMW Hydrogen 7 to Debut This Week

One of the most anticipated cars to debut this week at the L.A. Auto Show is the BMW Hydrogen 7, which the automaker bills as the “world’s first hydrogen-drive luxury performance automobile.” The Hydrogen 7 is essentially a BMW 7 Series vehicle equipped with a 260-horsepower, 12-cylinder engine that can burn both gasoline and liquid hydrogen fuel. The liquid hydrogen is stored in a large tank that takes up part of the car’s trunk. The vehicle is expected to go into production next year, with 100 vehicles being made available worldwide on a lease basis to high-profile individuals such as celebrities.

In creating its hydrogen vehicles, BMW has pursued a different route than other carmakers, who have relied primarily on hydrogen fuel cells. Instead, BMW has chosen to pump liquid hydrogen fuel directly into a onboard tank. The liquid hydrogen is then used to power the car via the reconfigured engine. While this in some ways improves efficiency, it also creates some problems. For instance, for the hydrogen to remain in its liquid form, it must be stored at a temperature of minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, the hydrogen must be pumped into the car from a hydrogen storage facility, which are in noticable short supply at the moment. One source estimated that there are only about 12 such facilities worldwide. So until the infrastructure for hydrogen improves, there will be few hydrogen fuel stations to which you’ll be able to pull up your vehicle for refueling.

Other aspects of the hydrogen fuel system have proved controversional as well. For instance, since hydrogen is rarely available in its pure form on earth, it takes quite a bit of energy to generate the hydrogen, which currently is derived primarily from natural gas and petroleum products. But BMW is working closely with a solar facility in Germany to develop a system by which the hydrogen is generated using renewable energy sources.

All this, however, shouldn’t detract from the fact that the world’s automakers, and BMW in particular in this case, are moving forward on developing vehicles that are powered by alternative fuels.

BMW notes that its new Hydrogen 7 can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 9.5 seconds, and has a cruising range of more than 400 miles on the combined tanks of gas and hydrogen. However, it is able to travel just 125 miles on the hydrogen fuel alone, and at this point filling the hydrogen tank is relatively expensive, in the range of $80 to $100 in U.S. dollars. The best news is that the byproduct of the hydrogen combustion is largely water vapor.

Certainly more will be written about the Hydrogen 7 in the days and weeks to come, and it’s certainly a car worth keeping our eyes on, if only for the fact that it is pushing the limits of today’s automative technology.

The Ford Reflex: Ushering in the Future

As you will probably come to find out over the next weeks and months, I am a huge fan and advocate of hybrid cars, and I’ve found my new, clean baby for the week: the Ford Reflex. Exposed at the 2006 Detroit auto show, the Reflex is innovation in every sense of the word, and not just because of its unconventional power sources.

Talk and production of hybrids has become commonplace lately. However, the Ford Reflex has moved beyond the standard electric motor/gasoline combination into cleaner territory, marrying an electric motor with a diesel engine. The result is very high performance, 0-60mph in under 7 seconds, certainly not record breaking, but fast in its own right. And while experiencing this sort of performance, the Ford estimates that the Reflex will get an actual fuel efficiency of between 40 and 65 mpg, an astounding number.

But Ford is not done looking to the future of automobiles with the engine; nearly every inch of the Reflex smacks of being futuristic and nostalgically sci-fi. The headlights, powered in part by the solar panels on the roof of the Reflex, look like something directly out of a Star Trek episode, while the Delorian-esq doors bring about thoughts of Back to the Future. While this is a very odd-looking car, I truly like the look of it.

The interior of the Ford Reflex is no less extraordinary. With a backseat that can be either one adult seat or two child seats with the press of a button, constantly monitored by a rear facing camera, the Reflex can be either a family car or a more sporty, single person’s car. A unique safety feature is the airbags that are attached to the seatbelt, blowing up on contact and providing more surface area and less intensity of restraint. One of my personal favorite features is the insulation of the Reflex, made from recycled Nike sneakers, really stepping up to the environmental protection plate. Another great feature is a blowing unit that sucks the hot air out of the car while it is park, once again powered by the unobtrusive solar panels that adorn the roof of the Reflex. While Ford does not seem to have a release date in mind for the Reflex, I hope that it is soon, because the world could use more cars with the ingenuity and cleanliness of the Reflex.

Nissan Versa

2007 Nissan Versa

I was brought up to be a Nissan fan. With my aunt working for the car company as long as I can remember, we got Nissans and Datsuns at cost, and riding in so many Nissans throughout my life instilled a strong sense of Nissan loyalty in me. The very first car I had that was all mine was a pea-soup green 1978 Datsun B210 that, despite the giant rusted dent in the side, the push button radio, and advanced age, had a certain loveable charm.

I still like Nissans, and am excited about the all-new lineup this year. The brand new 2007 Nissan Versa has that same kind of charm as my B210, only without the dent and with a much nicer sound system. The Versa is another one of those tiny, economical hatchbacks that have come out recently, along with the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris liftback. These cars are often entry-level, affordable cars geared towards a younger market. The Versa has a touch of sophistication that makes it stand out from the pack.

I recently had a chance to sit in the 2007 Nissan Versa at the New England auto show, and I was impressed. I think it has the nicest interior among the tiny cars, with a spacious trunk and reasonably-sized backseat. The Versa is a little bit longer than its competitors, which makes it infinitely more practical for carting around luggage and friends. The dash is attractive and logically laid out, and doesn’t have that cheap, trying-to-be-quirky look that so many cars in this market have, like the Scion xb. It looks like a grown-up’s car. Of course, the auto show model had all the gadgets, like bluetooth capability and an MP3 player hookup. It was also equipped with extras like sporty racing pedals, which diminished the cutness factor and put a little bark in its bite. The Versa was one of more popular cars I saw at the auto show, and I had to wait in line for chance to peek inside.

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to test-drive it soon. Early reviews say that it is a reasonably nice drive, but somewhat slow and can be noisy. A sedan version is expected to come out early next year.

A review of the Versa can be found here:

L.A. Auto Show Update: Hummer H4 Concept to Debut

Autoweek is reporting that General Motors will unveil a Hummer H4 concept vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which kicks off on Friday, Dec. 1, 2006. According to the Autoweek report, the H4 will be smaller than current Hummers and designed to compete with mid-size SUVs such as the Jeep Wrangler. The H4 is expected to be a production vehicle for the 2010 model year. Little else is known about the vehicle at this time, other than the fact that it will not be a front-wheel-drive vehicle, according to one of the report’s sources. GM is also planning an H3 pickup, which would appear in the 2009 model year. The goal, according to a source quoted in the report, is to expand the Hummer lineup in the coming years. Stay tuned for more details.

L.A. Auto Show Preview

Those who follow the car industry know that two of the biggest auto shows of the year — the North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit, and the Los Angeles Auto Show — traditionally were held the first or second week of January. And for the past couple of decades, the two shows have famously stepped on each other’s toes, often running simultaneously and competing for news-making car introductions, with L.A. routinely coming up on the losing end. That’s understandable, since Detroit has historically been the center of the North American auto industry.

So this year, L.A. decided to do something about it’s bridesmaid status by moving its show dates out of the shadow of the Detroit show. The 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show is scheduled to run from Friday, Dec. 1 through Sunday, Dec. 10, with press previews (and major introductions) scheduled for Nov. 29 and 30. The dates for the Detroit Auto Show will remain in its traditional early-January timeslot, from January 13-21, 2007, with press dates scheduled for Jan. 7-9.

For the L.A. show, this has been a major stroke of genius, giving it the chance to get a jump on the Detroit show. And automakers are responding by scheduling no less than 18 world debuts for production and concept vehicles, and 12 North American vehicle debuts.

For auto aficionados, that means there will be a lot of car news rolling out from manufacturers over the next few weeks, and a whole bunch of new cars to oogle at.

So what will we see at the L.A. show? BMW will introduce its all-new 3-series coupe, as well as a new hydrogen vehicle, called the Hydrogen 7. Nissan will show off its new Sentra performance vehicles, dubbed the SE-R and SE-R Spec V, and a new Saturn Vue, based on the Opel Antara, will debut, as will new vehicles from Cadillac, Mazda, Audi, Aston Martin, and Volkswagen. In addition, Bob Lutz of GM has hinted that his company will introduce a new electric vehicle. Stay tuned for additional updates and full coverage during the show.