LA Auto Show – driving green doesn’t mean giving up fun

German Press and Jetta TDI "Green Car of the Year"

Volkswagen did the unimaginable at the LA Auto Show.  It garnered the “Green Car of the Year”.  VW did it with a diesel, not a hybrid, not some exotic fuel, but a performance oriented turbo-DIESEL.  Hopefully that award will open up a few eyes to the ease one can “go green” and not have to give up any driving fun in the process.  (Snark alert:hopefully once and for all it will undo the diesel myths and damage done by GM with their failed attempt of making the diesel an important part of the US auto scene 30 years ago).

When I first heard it started inside the LA Convention center I knew there was going to be something really special about this car.  It didn’t smoke at start.  Other than a quick clatter when it first started it was silent when running.  It was silent under light acceleration.  The exhaust had a faint smell, not the sweet-sour you associate with a gas car, something more or less “nutty”.  Not objectionable, certainly not visible and something you had to look hard to notice.  That is a huge change from the last round of diesel VW’s we saw here a few years ago.

This years LA Auto Show had a few new wrinkles for press days.  The big one was that the manufacturers ponied up nearly 2 dozen “green cars” for the media to drive.   They were all were nominees for “Green Car of the Year” and represented a broad approach to cleaning up our cars more than they already are.  For my driving I opted for those cars that are more traditional in nature that the average guy would feel right at home in and get great results without having to change their driving habits or style.  (Well, one car was just for kicks and giggles simply because I want one.  You have to read to the end to figure out which one it is I wanted).

Before I got behind the wheel of the Jetta I hung around the staging area in the underground parking at the Convention center. All of the VW Diesels were nearly silent at idle and barely audible under light acceleration. Not even turbo whine could be heard. The most noise was the tires “screeching” as they were turned corners. Even in a parking garage that is notorious for booming echos the back ground din remained what you heard, not the car itself.   Chalk up a big point on the score board for that achievement.

Getting in the Jetta was like slipping into an old friend. It seems a lot bigger inside than its “compact” class designation would lead one to expect. It had the best quality feel of any VW I ever remember sitting in. Fit and Finish was much better than I expected. It was very nicely equipped with all the usual toys including built in nav and should sticker in the “high 20’s” according to the VW rep who rode with me. For those looking for more basic you can get into the car for just over $20K.

The Jetta TDI provided was the 2.0L Turbo diesel with the power put through a 6 speed DSG transmission.  Under light acceleration the car felt like a regular automatic tranny.  Step on it and suddenly you are aware this is special, it shifted quick crisp as if you were doing it manually.  Chalk up another big point for VW.  

Driving the Jetta TDI was really nice.  Good ride, decent handling and quiet.  Only during hardest of acceleration did you hear any engine noises, and even then what you heard was more like one would expect from a nicely tuned gas engine…harmonious mechanics with a nice growl out of the tail pipe.   The first time I had to goose her hard to merge into traffic I actually lit off one of the inside tires.  That was the first time I noticed the ample torque in the car (a typical hallmark of a diesel is that they are very high torque motors). The tranny was well balanced and no torque steer was noted when accelerating during a turn.  Chalk up another point for the Jetta TDI.    Overall under light throttle the car took off nicely, certainly stayed with traffic with ease.  What I did notice is that when you stepped on it power built slowly at first and there was a noticeable leap when the turbo kicked in.  Nice, not obnoxious, just steady fast building stream of power.  

With a price in the mid-20’s nicely equipped this is an easy car to go green with no effort at all.  Rated at 29/41 it is going to be easy on the wallet, even with the 10-20% premium over regular gas.  With diesel packing nearly 30% more energy per gallon that premium paid is easily offset with the increased fuel economy over a gas engine of the same size.

BWM 335td - super performance, great mileage and green!
BWM 335d - super performance, great mileage and green!

The last time around we saw diesel BMW’s for sale they were here for the great mileage.  This iteration of the BMW Diesel hit all the right notes from the moment you sat in the 335d and fired it up.  The engine gave a couple of growls at ignition but in an immeasurable second quieted down to the smooth idle one expects (demands!?) from a BMW.

Slipping it into gear and stepping off you notice quickly it feels much more powerful than you expect from a 3.0l six.  Again, its that torque thing and this car is rated at over 400ft lbs of torque…that my friends is big block V8 torque used to pull stumps or alter the orbit of small planets.  Lighting the wheels was too easy with that much power.  Shhh…wipe the silly ass grin off my face, but damn that always is fun.

There is never a rattle or hesitation to let you notice it is anything other than a finely tuned BMW powerplant. It was just a steady, seamless rush of power.  Everything one demands in a BMW was there except one thing, rapid gas depletion.  The final EPA numbers aren’t in but it expected to garner at least a 36MPG highway.  European publications have noted highway numbers in the 40’s possible.  The MPG gauge on this hard driven 335d with all in town around the convention center mileage registered a respectable 26.7mpg.

With a sticker of 43.9K this isn’t a cheap car, but for the performance oriented guy or BMW loyalist this is a way to start the transition to green without giving up on the fun.

Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell - silent on demand power and very green*
Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell - silent on demand power and very green*

 The next on my rototation of cars was the Equinox Fuel Cell.  This is billed as “pertroleum free” and it is if you watch how the hydrogen you use is sourced.  (Hyrdogen’s inconvenient truth is that the majority of it in the US is sourced in natural gas or other fossil fuel and the Hydrogen cracked free leaving that nasty CO2 being released).  No matter how you slice it though the car is “zero emission at source of operation” and that is something that matters here in the LA Basin.  

Driving the Equinox was really a pleasant surprise.  I have been a fan of the hydrogen fuel cell since I first heard of its potential as a kid back on the Twentieth Century TV Show with Walter Cronkite.  I’m not a huge fan of SUV’s but the Equinox is a nice tight and smallish vehicle with capacity for hauling when needed.  The Equinox is a fuel cell with battery storage not unlike a hybrid prius/escape.  The fuel cell propels you when battery power can’t meet your driving demands.

A short explanation of a fuel cell is that hydrogen is flowed across a grid with air.  The hydrogen mixes with the oxygen in the air and creates electricity off that grid.  The electricity is used to power the car and all its goodies and the only emission is water vapor.  Just water, how much greener can one get?

Driving it is interesting.  You don’t know its on…dead silence.  You step on the gas and it goes, step harder and it goes faster.  Still dead silence except the thump and drone of the tires.  Braking is more like a hybrid in that it uses regenerative braking to recharge the batteries.  Power is strong and instantaneous.  There is no adapting to the car, just get in and drive.  That will make this a really easy green conversion as it requires no changes in habits to make it work.

I wish I could have spent more time in this one.  As it was I got a lot of info in the 10 minute drive from the Chevy rep who went with me.  Most important was the energy and price comparisons of Hydrogen to Gasoline.  Hydrogen is measured in kilograms.  In a straight weight comparison Hydrogen has twice the energy of the same weight of gasoline.  

Currently there aren’t retail sales of hydrogen but the cost is calculated and it compares to the cost of premium grade gasoline. The hydrogen cars in use right now are part of test fleets and they fill using a pin number at the pump so there isn’t a hard number to use as “retail” and I had to rely on the honesty of the Chevy guy.   When you calculate in the energy content of the hydrogen it works out to 1/2 the cost of gas.   In terms of MPG, and I’ll admit I don’t have numbers and the formula he used, but the equinox gets the equivalent of 45-50mpg (recall it is a type of hybrid drive).   

The infrastructure to support hydrogen fuel doesn’t exist yet.  There are only a handful of stations in CA.  Fortunately one of them is a Shell Station in WLA that produces its own hydrogen from electrolysis (water cracked to produce free oxygen and hydrogen).  Refilled at that station the Equinox is a really green vehicle.  Filled at stations using petroleum sourced hydrogen the carbon footprint is still very good, according to Chevy it is about the same as a car getting about 50mpg.  Certainly far better than what one will get from a regular SUV, even a compact one like this.

Certainly infrastructure isn’t the only hurdle that the fuel cell face in order for it to become a meaningful percentage of the cars in use.  The other is packaging.  The tanks for the hydrogen are big, bulky and very heavy. Have to be.  If they aren’t you have a few hundred thousand Hindenbergs ready to blow.  The technology needs a little more development to make it small enough to put into regular compact and subcompact cars.  I suspect we aren’t far from that.  Once both packaging and infrastructure is in place this could well be our best bet for an easy conversion to a clean running fleet.

The final car I drove was the Smart For Two.  I have to admit I’ve loved that crazy little car since I first read about it some 15 years ago.  My passion for the insanely small thing increased when I saw my first one in ’99.  What a great idea, not so much for its fuel economy which is pretty darn good, but for its size.  The perfect little car for darting about with all the little errands.  Perfect little car for fitting into those half spaces leftover after a parking tard SUV takes up 1 1/2 compact spaces.  

Smart For Two -33city/41highway
Smart For Two -33city/41highway

Driving it was trippy as hell.  It too is an automated shift manual like the VW DSG…or horrors a Ferrari.  It lacked the refinement of those cars and needed some time on the learning curve to get used to driving it in automated mode.  Slip it to paddle shift mode and it was a breeze.  I liked it.  

I still want it, but unfortunately it doesn’t cover enough of my daily running around in circles, like getting kids to school – it seats two and I need at least 3, 4 if it is raining.  Just make mine yellow with the black tridium.  I wanna look like a bumble bee buzzing around doing my errands.  Sadly, its EPA numbers are pretty awesome at 33/41, but when you look at some of the diesels and hybrids those cars become a better fit for my needs.  Damn that practical side of the brain.

Those are my personal top picks.  Two are immediately available and an easy transition to green without having to change driving styles or eliminating the fun.  Another is close to being a reality.  The other is completely silly and irrelevant to my daily needs but would just be fun.

A final side bar if you will.  Toyota had a really interesting concept car. I really didn’t like the looks of the car with the solid front end.  It reminded me of some bulbous whale head.  The technology was solid.  It was a Camry Natural Gas Hybrid.  What a great idea.  Natural Gas burns inherently cleaner than gasoline.  (So clean that a Ford Crown Vic on nat gas qualifies for a Clean Air Pass for the car pool lanes).  Using hybrid technology with a natural gas engine certainly cleans up the already clean Camry Hybrid.


Camry Hybrid - potentially very clean car, just the front is pretty fugly.
Camry Nat Gas Hybrid - potentially very clean car, just the front is pretty fugly.

Ford’s Fusion and Mercury Milan Hybrids got a total redesign for 2010 and go on sale in the spring.  Of interest is the Fusion/Milan Hybrids.  They obtain at least 5MPG over the Camry Hybrid with preliminary ratings of 36/39(autoblog reports epa city as 39mpg!)  You can achieve those ratings while driving them like a regular car.  Unique to the hybrids out there, Fusion/Milan can travel as fast as 47mph on battery alone which is what helps give them their better than Camry Hybrid numbers.

All the pics and vid are by me.  Apologies for the vid, it was done with a dum-dum digicam.  The lead pic of the VW Jetta TDI is done with HDR file generation and tonemapping by Photomatix.  The remainders are simple jpegs.  A complete run down of the cars I spent time in can be found in my flickr 2008 LA Auto Show set.

6 thoughts on “LA Auto Show – driving green doesn’t mean giving up fun”

  1. I don’t know about all the new cars, but in the past when I took my vacation in France I took advantage of a buy/hire program with Renault USA where you agree to ‘buy’ the car and after minimum of 17 days rental, you return it and they ‘buy’ it back…you know up front what you’re paying for the use of the car (insurance included, etc) and you get a brand new car. Having rented a Renault diesel via Avis before, I always request the diesel and not only are they nothing like the old ones here in the US, you can’t event tell they’re diesel….and the mileage is fantastic…I’m glad to see VW has stepped up to the plate…Are they being made in Mexico like the Beetle? I hear they’re already available in Texas….

  2. A diesel that performs?? Wha….????

    It’s about time America caught up with the rest of the world in the diesel market. Diesels have always had a stigma attached to them in America thanks to trucks, and old, run-down VW rabbits and Mercedes from the 80’s. Hopefully the idea sticks in our failing market.

  3. I have to agree with both the diesel is long over due its glory in both the performance and low emissions. Certainly anyone who drives them will be impressed with how well they perform.

  4. I wish the Tesla was there but sadly it didn’t participate. What I am more curious to see is their sports sedan…yup a 4 door, 4 seat sedan that is rumored to be in the offing.

    I really like the idea of electric cars. The problem with them and the plug-in hybrids get sucked into it and for me lose some green potential is when you look at how we make our electricity. 85% is from burning fossil fuels, much of it from coal. Much of our coal plants are so old that they aren’t using current technology to clean them up. The end result is the emissions are moved from the car to a powerplant throwing stuff in the air.

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