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At L.A. Show, Hybrids Are Big

Green tech continues to dominate major auto shows, but at L.A., the theme is hybrids with heft

Will the eco-trendiness that has made a sales star of Toyota Motor's (TM) gas-electric Prius brush off on mega-trucks and behemoth SUVs? That's what automakers are asking with a raft of new super-sized hybrids at this year's L.A. Auto Show, which opens to the public on Nov. 16 and runs until Nov. 25.

The Chrysler Group introduced two new mega-hybrids, the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango, both odd combinations that merge gas-electric power with impressive capabilities like an optional 385 horsepower engine and a 6,000 pound towing capacity. General Motors (GM) unveiled a surprise full-sized hybrid pickup truck, the 2009 Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid. It's also touting its hybrid version of the glitzy Cadillac Escalade, which it unveiled at the South Florida Auto Show earlier this month. And, Porsche made a light-bathed spectacle of its hybrid Cayenne SUV's North American debut.

But even in the heart of the country's largest market for hybrid cars, there's little evidence that consumers will take to the hulking vehicles the way they have to Toyota's flagship gas-electric. Sales of that Lilliputian model are up a whopping 41% for the first 10 months of the year, to 137,114 units, compared with the same period in 2006.

Small Market for Hybrids

But hybrids still make up a slim share of the entire new-vehicle market in the U.S. About 300,000, or 2%, of the 16 million cars that will be sold in 2007 will be gas-electrics, according to Erich Merkle, vice-president of forecasting at the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based automotive forecasting firm IRN.

"Even if most hybrid buyers are motivated by eco-consciousness how many Durango or Escalade buyers are really going to be motivated to do their part for the environment?" asks Merkle. He expects General Motors to sell about 30,000 of its new vehicles and Chrysler to sell just 3,000 to 4,000 hybrid SUVs next year, a drop in the bucket compared to the companies' non-hybrid SUV sales.

And yet, this new generation of American-developed hybrids, though large, features an advanced so-called "two-mode" system that enables the vehicles to travel using only electric power at low speeds, improving fuel economy in city driving. Still, a hybrid Escalade, for example, is expected to earn just 18 miles per gallon combined, up from 16.5 for the conventional model. The system was developed as a joint venture between the two companies as well as BMW (BMWG). (To read more about GM's hybrid technology breakthroughs, click here).

Silverado Surprises

Perhaps the most surprising announcement was GM's hybrid pickup truck. The introduction could be a measure of the influence of Toyota's surging success in the U.S. The Japanese auto manufacturer famously never lets a flop in the market stop it from trying again, improving along the way. Now, after a mild-hybrid version of the 2005 Silverado sold dismally, GM appears to be trying again.

This time, however, the Silverado features a full hybrid system that should improve fuel consumption by about 25% overall. When it goes on sale in late 2008, the Silverado will be the only hybrid full-size pickup truck on the market. "Of all the hybrid announcements, the pickup is the one with the most potential as a game changer," says Ray Wert, a blogger with the popular auto site, and a frequent critic of GM's mild hybrid efforts. Wert thinks small-business owners may be swayed by the utility and economy of a hybrid with the towing capacity of a pickup, folding the extra costs into a business lease.

American companies weren't the only ones showing off new SUVs. Toyota unveiled an unabashed behemoth at this year's show, the 2008 Sequoia, a massive, full-sized SUV based on a redesigned version of the company's existing Tundra pickup truck platform (, 1/30/07). The truck will be available with either a 4.7-liter or 5.7-liter V-8 engine.

To get the U.S.-sized vehicle right, the car's chief engineer, Motoharu Araya, lived with a large family with a full-sized SUV to better understand the particular needs of Toyota's U.S. customers. Toyota says the large vehicle will produce fewer emissions than the outgoing vehicle.

The horsepower war that has sent performance figures through the roof in recent years was also on full display. The show marks the North American debut of several notable monster vehicles, which were unveiled at previous auto shows around the world. The debut of vehicles like the $1.4 million Lamborghini Reventón and the 480-horsepower Nissan GT-R is significant considering Southern California is the world's largest market for exotic and so-called super cars.

"Clean Technologies" Are Key

But, that's not to say some manufacturers weren't focused on fuel economy. Volkswagen (VOWG) showed a gas-thrifty small SUV, the 2008 Tiguan, and said its 2008 Jetta clean-diesel model should go on sale in all 50 states next summer. "Clean technologies like diesel will be key to reaching our goal of selling 800,000 vehicles annually in the U.S.," said Stefan Jacoby, CEO of Volkswagen of America. The company also showed off an innovation concept, the Space Up Blue featuring a plug-in hydrogen fuel-cell and roof-mounted solar panels.

Even Chevrolet executives committed to building a minicar based on the Beat concept shown earlier this year at the New York Auto Show, with production set to start for Asian and Latin American markets in 2009. The little vehicles that could reap up to 50 miles per gallon could eventually come to the U.S. "Online consumer surveys [told] us the Beat resonated with customers all around the world," said Chevrolet General Manager Ed Peper.

And yet, the most advanced technology on display in LA may be a long ways off. During the staged unveiling of VW's plug-in fuel cell vehicle, former NBA star John "Spider" Salley suggested he wanted the concept vehicle right away. Jacoby quickly retorted, "Well not just yet. You'll have to wait a little bit."

Click here to see the highlights of the 2007 L.A. Auto Show.

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