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Czech out that cutting-edge styling from the 1970s

L.A. AUTO SHOW NOTEBOOK

November 16, 2007|Ken Bensinger; Martin Zimmerman

After two days of media frenzy, the unofficial verdict is in: The most beautiful car at this year's L.A. Auto Show has been out of production for 32 years.

The car, a Czech-made Tatra 603/2, was put on display by automotive supplier Faurecia, which makes components for car interiors. The French company rescued a junked 1972 Tatra and restored it, creating a new, drastically modified interior filled with high-tech gadgets and materials -- in essence, a concept interior.

And although features such as a sliding drawer underneath the trunk, dual glove compartments and adjustable in-door armrests were cool, visitors tended mainly to be in awe of the striking car itself. With its Jestonsesque styling, split rear window and retro-future front end, the car was turning heads.

"A lot of people have come in wanting to buy it," says Rob Fitzpatrick, an industrial designer for Faurecia. Of course, the car doesn't actually run, he adds.

Tatra still exists but it doesn't make cars anymore. The 603 was produced from 1955 to 1975 and went through three designs. Fun fact: Fidel Castro owned one.

-- Ken Bensinger

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Orange is the new black

A stroll through the exhibition halls at the show revealed a blazing trend in the design department: Orange is in. Concept cars, production cars, relics of earlier eras, all came out painted in that space between red and yellow on the color spectrum.

"Orange comes and goes. It was popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s," said Geoff Wardle, who teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "Perhaps it's back again."

Indeed. An informal count by The Times found no fewer than 30 cars decked out in some variant of the pumpkin hue, including one of the most-talked-about debuts at the show, the Hyundai Genesis concept car, in blinding "sonic orange."

Of all carmakers, General Motors seemed most enamored of orange, displaying seven orange vehicles in at least three shades. Ford, on the other hand, had but one orange car. Not surprisingly, the color was far less common among luxury brands, especially those that take themselves very seriously, like Mercedes and Maserati, where the focus was on silver, black and white.

Color choice, according to Eric Noble, president of car consulting firm Car Labs, is about psychology.

"Red is passion. And yellow is new. So orange is passionately new. So orange cars work really well at car shows."

-- Ken Bensinger

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Tahoe takes home a prize

It's not a car and, according to at least one environmentalist, it's not exactly green. But GM's new Chevy Tahoe hybrid sport utility vehicle was named Green Car of the Year at the show Thursday.

An eight-seater with a 6.0-liter V-8 engine, the Tahoe gets a rating of 21 miles per gallon in city driving from the Environmental Protection Agency. Not exactly Toyota Prius territory, but as GM execs love to point out, it equals the city mileage of the Japanese automaker's four-cylinder Camry sedan.

And it's a 50% increase over the city mileage of the nonhybrid Tahoe with a 5.3-liter V8.

"This is a milestone in many respects," said Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal, which sponsors the award. He notes that despite high gas prices, consumers continue to buy big SUVs in part because they need the extra power for towing or hauling cargo. The Tahoe is the first full-sized SUV to come in a hybrid.

The $50,000 SUV and the new Chevy Silverado hybrid pickup use an advanced two-mode hybrid system that many in the industry say is superior to Toyota's for powering full-sized vehicles. The system is part of an array of new technologies that GM hopes will propel it ahead of Toyota in fuel economy in the near future.

"With larger vehicles generally comes poorer fuel economy," Cogan said. "An equalizer has been needed, and the two-mode hybrid system in the Tahoe is clearly the equalizer."

Not everyone was impressed.

" 'Greenwashing' a gas-guzzling behemoth doesn't mean the automakers understand the problem," said Sarah Connolly of the environmental group Rainforest Action Network. "They have the technology to do 40 miles per gallon now. We can't settle for 20."

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From Prius to plug-in hybrid

In a bit of street theater, activists converted a conventional Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid in a parking lot across from the Convention Center on Thursday. "Our whole goal is to get the carmakers to build plug-in hybrids," said Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, an advocacy group in Palo Alto.

Plug-in hybrids operate like conventional gasoline-electric hybrids but with more powerful battery packs that allow a significant amount of electric-only driving and can be recharged overnight using a conventional home outlet.

Toyota and GM are working on plug-in vehicles, but both say perfecting advanced lithium ion battery technology is a prerequisite for bringing one to market. GM expects to begin road-testing a lithium-ion-equipped version of its Volt concept car next spring with an eye toward having it in showrooms in 2010. Toyota has set no timetable.

Kramer and other activists think Toyota and the other automakers are moving too slowly. "Perfect is the enemy of good," he said, contending that searching for the ideal lithium ion battery gives the automakers an excuse not to produce interim plug-in models powered by the type of nickel-metal hydride batteries used in current conventional hybrids.

Prius plug-in conversions like the one demonstrated Thursday -- using nickel-metal hydride batteries -- will be available commercially from Plug-In Conversions Corp. of Poway, Calif., next year for $8,000 to $15,000.

The parking lot conversion was achieved in short order, although a couple of days of prep work was needed. Kramer, whose group claims credit for the first Prius plug-in conversion in 2004, said the time needed for the changeover should soon be down to two hours.

-- Martin Zimmerman

Coming Sunday in Business

Tips on how to buy a car and how the auto show can help.

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