Review: Hybrids, electrics mostly positive at L.A. Auto Show

Santa Monica residents have long embraced alternative energy. Taxicabs are hybrids, busses run on compressed natural gas, and there are more bike lanes than botox clinics in Beverly Hills. While a Toyota Prius with a McGovern bumper sticker was once the hallmark whip for a Santa Monica resident, auto eco-consciousness isn’t just for the “crunchy granolas” of 90405 anymore.

In fact, carmakers are introducing aggressively styled, high performance luxury eco-autos, all on display for the public to experience at the 2012 L.A. Auto Show.

Southern California favorite BMW adds an Active Hybrid variant to the popular three series line, which touts a 23/33 mpg from a 240-horsepower four-cylinder engine. Those are the exact same numbers for the gas-powered 335i with the beefier six-cylinder engine.

Why would you buy this car? Perhaps, so you can drive around with a hybrid sticker on your trunk and not feel as bad about flying down Pico Boulevard to get to an 8 a.m. class? But the $50,000 starting price is $8,000 more than the 335i, which could buy you many more stickers.

The Fisker Karma, an all-electric, plug-in vehicle that debuted in late 2011, makes an appearance at the auto show with an emphasis on sustainability. The Karma features industry leading eco-conscious engineering with water-based exterior paint and reclaimed wood from California forest fires as interior finishing options.

With contoured shaping, 22-inch wheels and a solar paneled roof, the Karma is by far the most visually striking of the new electric vehicles. However, at a base price of $102,000, it is also the most expensive. Zero emissions, zero in your pockets.

The exterior design is surely breathtaking, but the Alcantara-esque coated interior looks and feels cheap. Fiskers also made news recently after Karmas had the habit of spontaneously combusting. And the car only does around 32 miles on one charge. But hey, Justin Bieber owns one.

Ford’s C-Max is a hybrid to compete with the Prius; it’s a little bit bigger and gets 5 mpg better than the Toyota. The Fusion Hybrid’s chiseled lines and low, aerodynamic fascia makes the car look more like a Jaguar than a Ford. However, consumers will have to live with little things like cheap-feeling plastic buttons inside.

Chevy’s long controversial Volt still looks like a late 1990’s Malibu, but is upstaged by the company’s Spark. Chevy calls it a “mini-car,” but that’s a nice marketing term for a car that’s extremely small.

On the plus side, with tax incentives, the car is under $25,000, and the folks at Chevy say it can charge to 80 percent capacity in only 20 minutes. If the battery life is as poor as my iPhone’s, well, at least it will charge faster.

Despite the excitement of the new eco-friendly vehicles, there are still some major losers. Nissan’s all-electric LEAF is so unappealing that no line of interested parties formed around the car during peak hours at Saturday’s show, as was the norm for almost every other car.

Consumer Reports says that Nissan’s claim for 100-mile range in colder temperatures is way off—their car only went 60. While it’s not a problem for Santa Monica residents who are staying in town, varying range issues could be a real issue for other commuters who might be going through drastic temperature swings.

Mini’s foray into alternative energy won’t come until the 2014 model year, with a hybrid offering in the Cooper model. Still, the gas version’s combined 31 mpg is nothing to ignore. An all-electric Mini is in the works too, according to the company.

Lovers of the city’s Big Blue Bus program will appreciate Honda’s compressed natural gas powered Civic. The cleaner burning car shares the same features—albeit with lower horsepower and torque—as its hybrid and gas counterparts.

However, the CNG variant is $5,000 more expensive than its gas powered counterpart, and be careful where you take it—there’s only one CNG station in Santa Monica.

Honda shows off its EV-STER, a two-seat, all electric concept sports car with radical seamless body parts and an airplane yoke-style. It looks like a bona fide spaceship, and it’s an exciting look at what’s in store for a brand too often plagued with banality.

With angular lines and radical shapes, BMW’s electric i3 concept resembled something out of a Sid Myer painting. The all-electric drivetrain will be developed with a carbon fiber reinforced plastic frame to increase efficiency and decrease weight.

While the market share for hybrid and electric cars is still small—less than four percent of all cars sold—it’s grown one whole percent since last winter, according to The New York Times.

But these cars are cool. There is a real feeling that automakers are embracing the alternative energy from a holistic perspective.