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The L.A. Auto Show is greening up

The Electron Age may soon be upon us, and the L.A. Auto Show, opening today at the Convention Center, has a couple of remarkable electric vehicles to take us to that greener future.

December 04, 2009

Imagine one of the robots from outer space in the "Transformers" movies turning from a car into a boom box, and you'd have the Toyota Scion xB DJ 2.0, among the more spectacular of the conceptual vehicles on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The back of the car actually folds out into giant speakers, while the rear bed becomes a little Conga Room with flashing colored lights, a fog machine and a professional deejay panel. The standard tricked-out urban audio assault vehicle puts out bass notes loud enough to shake the windows of nearby cars; this thing looks like it could blast them into another lane.

This year's show is a little disappointing when it comes to such full-scale Hot Wheels, which carmakers roll outat auto shows to distract attention from the fact that their actual production models are fairly humdrum. But I didn't go to Wednesday's media preview for the concept cars anyway. The L.A. show, which opens to the public today, is traditionally a showcase for "green" cars. For years I've been making a pilgrimage to the Convention Center hoping to see something groundbreaking. What I've found are promises -- amazing electric vehicles under development but not ready for production. Until now.

Carmakers have finally had time to retool after skyrocketing oil prices did to gas-guzzlers what a meteor did to hadrosaurs, and at least two plug-in electric cars will hit the market in 2010. The Nissan Leaf, an all-electric car, will go about 100 miles on a charge. But the one I've been waiting two years to see is the Chevy Volt, an electric-gasoline hybrid that goes 40 miles on a charge before the gas engine kicks in. Such plug-in hybrids have all the advantages of electric cars with none of the disadvantages. The Leaf's limited range makes it purely a commuter car; the Volt goes far enough to make most commutes emissions-free, but if you also want to drive it on long trips, you can.

The concept version of the Volt released a couple of years ago looked like the Batmobile. The one on display at the auto show, which is much closer to the actual production model slated to arrive in November, looks more like the love child of a Toyota Prius and a Buick LaCrosse. But if this car lives up to its hype (a big if, given worries about whether the battery technology is ready), it could change the world. Or at least the electrical system in my garage.

Speaking of which, anybody else slavering over the soon-to-dawn Electron Age should know two things: You get a $7,500 tax credit when you buy a Leaf (retail price not yet announced) or a Volt (which will sell for "under $40,000"), and utilities have or are rolling out special rates and meters for those who want to plug their cars in overnight for a recharge. It takes a lot of green to be green, unfortunately, but these incentives could help keep household finances in the black.

-- Dan Turner

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