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L.A. Auto Show Focuses on Glitter, Practicality

January 06, 1990|BURGE HULETT | Hulett is a free-lance writer who specializes in auto and motorcycle features

General Motors may get the spotlight and come in for the most curtain calls at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show when it opens today at the L.A. Convention Center. Subject of the hoopla is the introduction of a prototype electric passenger car.

The Impact, which can go 124 miles on a single charge and even out-accelerate some internal combustion cars, was unveiled to the press Wednesday. Unlike other electric vehicles that are conversions of existing cars or vans, GM's version was designed from the ground up as a practical electric car for the consumer market.

A teardrop-shaped two-seater, the Impact has a top speed of 75 m.p.h. and is powered by 32 10-volt lead-acid batteries. General Motors officials have said the car places GM "on the cutting edge of technology" and it could be on American roads by 1994.

Rivaling GM for attention will be 24 never-seen-in-North America production cars and 11 concept cars. All this is among the 650 late-model cars and specialty vehicles that will be on display.

Auto shows have as much of their own style as the wide variety of glittering new cars. And in recent years, the L.A. show has come to be among the world's most prestigious, ranking with shows in other car capitals such as Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt and Detroit.

Historically, concept cars--or design studies, as they are sometimes called--have been used at auto shows for publicity purposes and as elaborate business cards.

What's changed for the '90s is that these futuristic vehicles lean more on practicality than ever before as manufacturers fight for niches in the world's most hotly contested car market.

Among the concept entries this week are Subaru's SRD-1, Cadillac's Solitaire, Chrysler's Millennium, Oldsmobile's Aerotech III, Isuzu's 4200-H, the Dodge Viper, Ford's Splash, Buick's Lucerne convertible, Plymouth's Speedster, Pontiac's Stinger and the Porsche Panamericana.

To maintain a low-pressure atmosphere, exhibitors agree to a no-sales policy. "What we try to do," says Jeanne Hoover, manager of sales promotion and merchandising for Mitsubishi Motor Sales, "is give the public as much information as we can. At the show, all of us encourage people to touch, sit in and look at just lots of cars. It's a terrific place to compare."

Most of the exhibitors staff their displays with a combination of dealership and manufacturer personnel, who are usually selected for the assignment because they are especially knowledgeable about not only their own products but those of other manufacturers.

Several companies, including Mitsubishi, offer sophisticated computer services so that interested consumers can print the manufacturer's suggested price lists to use later if they plan to visit a retail dealership.

According to show manager Andy Fuzesi, most of the more than 500,000 people who will visit the show are potential buyers. "Of course, not everyone is in the market for a car when they actually come to the show," he says, "but, especially in Southern California, they will be sometime during the next few years."

Many who attend the show are hard-core car buffs, people who want to know about anything and everything that's automotive. They visit the show to take in its vibrant atmosphere and enjoy the varied displays of vehicles.

Among cars making their North American debut in the L.A. show are (in no particular order): Avanti's elegant 4-door touring sedan; the long-awaited Lotus Elan; Mitsubishi's 3000GT; Buick's Park Avenue; Ford's Escort and Explorer; the Alfa Romeo Spider and 164; a Hyundai sports coupe, Chevrolet's new Caprice Classic, Beretta convertible, Camaro, four-door Blazer and Geo Metro convertible; Dodge's stunning Stealth; the completely restyled Toyota MR2 and new Land Cruiser; BMW's new 850i; Oldsmobile's Bravada sport/utility vehicle; a Mercury Capri; Dodge's Shadow convertible; a Pontiac Firebird and a new Ferrari, the 348.

And for the first time on the West Coast, Honda's Acura division will display its top-of-the-line mid-engined, two-seat sports car, called the NSX. This is the car Honda management hopes will unseat Ferrari and Porsche as the leading world-class production sports cars in the $60,000-and-up class.

While the one-of-a-kind cars, debut models and sports cars get most of the attention, they are only a small part of an overall event that includes vehicles of all kinds: trucks, vans, antiques, racing cars, utility models, customs, and every family sedan, econo box and sport coupes (as opposed to sports cars) built just about anywhere in the world.

Because of sold-out space limitations at the convention center, there is little room for accessory people, although two well-known automotive artists who work in different media will be in the main hall.

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