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L.A. Auto Show to serve as stage for vehicles, technologies

In addition to debuts of the latest Porsche Cayman, Toyota RAV-4 and more, such things as three-cylinder engines and phone navigation will be worth a look.

November 25, 2012|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • Ford will show off its Fiesta, which has a new turbocharged three-cylinder engine that produces 123 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque — more powerful than the car’s current base four-cylinder. The car may also achieve fuel economy north of 40 mpg.
Ford will show off its Fiesta, which has a new turbocharged three-cylinder… (Bethany Mollenkof, Los…)

On any Saturday afternoon, the unlikely mix of exotic coupes, vintage woodies and electric cars sharing Pacific Coast Highway makes clear why Southern California is the center of U.S. car culture.

A similarly diverse array of machinery has made the Los Angeles Auto Show the premier stage for both cutting-edge green cars and sportier offerings designed to carve up that famous coastal road.

This year's show, the first North American showcase of the model year, starts Wednesday for the media and opens to the public Friday at the downtown convention center. It will feature two dozen world debuts, including Porsche's redesigned 2014 Cayman sports car, a hardtop counterpart to the Boxster convertible; and Toyota Motor Corp.'s latest RAV-4, a leading small sport utility vehicle.

Video chat: What's new at the Los Angeles Auto Show

Acura will unveil an all-new flagship sedan, powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine making 310 horsepower. Hyundai Motor Co. will show off a special concept car it says was designed with California car culture front of mind.

On the electric front, Chevrolet will reveal its Spark EV, which will have more power, torque and speed than the gas-powered version of the same car. General Motors Co. says the car will jump from a start to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds, which will make it one of the fastest EVs on the market (though still slow compared with the pricier, made-in-California Tesla Model S). Likewise, Fiat will show off an electric version of its 500 mini-car.

If you go to the show, or just want to track the latest in the auto industry, here are five new technologies to watch.

Three-cylinder engines

They have been tried before in America with little success. But a new generation of small, powerful engines will soon make inroads in cars that have traditionally needed at least a four-banger.

Ford Motor Co. will show off its small Fiesta with a new turbocharged three-cylinder engine that produces 123 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque — more powerful than the car's current base four-cylinder. The car may also achieve fuel economy north of 40 mpg.

Shrinking the engine size and weight without losing power is a key goal of automotive engineering, said Andrew Fraser, one of the Ford engineers who developed the power plant.

"It's a virtuous circle," Fraser said. "As you reduce the weight of the engine, everything else on the vehicle can be lighter, and you get better weight distribution and it drives better. Resistance to turning the car is largely determined by the weight in the front of it."

That's why many high-end sports cars have a mid-engine, he said, and why 50-50 weight distribution is seen as the holy grail of car design, creating nimble handling.

Other manufacturers — including BMW and Volkswagen — are working with three-cylinder engines that they may introduce in the U.S. market in coming years. The three-cylinder Ford Fiesta goes on sale in the U.S. in the second half of next year.

Phone navigation

Automakers typically embed features such as navigation and voice recognition in dashboards so they can charge as much as $2,000 for the options. Chevrolet is taking a different approach with its smallest and least expensive cars, the Spark and the Sonic.

These vehicles come with a 7-inch color touch screen and GM's MyLink, which allows drivers to purchase a $50 BringGo smartphone app to display a navigation program and traffic updates. This has virtually all of the information drivers would find in an embedded navigation system, including emergency information for police and the nearest hospital, points of interest, maps and turn-by-turn directions.

The MyLink system enables car owners to bring other apps to the vehicle such as Pandora and Stitcher radio services.

"This makes the car an extension of your smartphone," said Sara LeBlanc, global program manager for Chevrolet and General Motors infotainment. "It is an incredible deal when compared to the cost of an aftermarket Garmin or embedded navigation system."

So why don't automakers do this with all of their cars?

Not everyone has an Android or Apple smartphone, LeBlanc said. GM can take this approach because Spark demographics skew so young, and 90% of the target market has a smartphone, she said. But only about half of Chevrolet Malibu buyers have the phones, and GM can't afford to alienate the buyers who don't by not offering a navigation and voice recognition option.

LeBlanc, however, said she wouldn't be surprised if systems like these gain popularity because of their convenience and cost savings.

"The radio is a perfect example of change at GM," LeBlanc said. "We didn't tell our customers what they should have. Instead we listened to what they want."

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