Auto companies rev up to entice in L.A., Detroit

Times Staff Writer

The 2003 car show season will leap off the line Saturday with the opening of the 99th annual Greater L.A. Auto Show and jump into overdrive Jan. 11 with the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The Detroit show is known for its extravagant displays of futuristic concepts and seemingly endless unveilings of new models, an annual coming-out party for the American industry in its hometown. By comparison, the nine-day Los Angeles event -- traditionally the first of the year on the auto show circuit -- is more consumer-oriented. That acknowledges California as the single largest auto market in the country, accounting for more than 12% of all new passenger vehicles sold each year.

Consumer researchers have found that the Los Angeles event attracts a higher percentage of visitors who plan to buy new vehicles than any other show in the country. For manufacturers, that makes it a prime spot for gathering consumer reactions to new and future products.

To cite one such example: Ford Motor Co.'s Aston Martin brand will show a two-seat convertible concept car created specifically for the U.S. market. The company says it wants to see whether there is sufficient interest among Los Angeles' large population of high-end auto buffs to warrant production of the car, dubbed the American Roadster, or DB AR1.

The Los Angeles show has been a hot spot for so-called green cars, and Ford will take center stage with the announcement of an ultra-low-emission engine for all its Focus models -- except the SVT performance version -- sold in California.

The 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine has more power and lower emissions than the present 2.0- liter engine. Ford insiders say it also is equipped with a special fuel vapor recovery system that will allow it to join a select group of engines -- Nissan Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. have the only others -- that can earn a partial zero-emission vehicle, or P-ZEV, rating from the California Air Resources Board.

Several worldwide vehicle debuts are scheduled for Los Angeles:

* General Motors Corp. will take the covers off the 2004 Pontiac GTO, a restyled version of the Australian Holden stuffed with a powerful V-8 engine.

* Ford will show the first concept model from its Ingenie Design Studio in London, a so-called urban vehicle intended to compete with youth-market products such as Honda's truck-like Element and Toyota Motor Corp.'s new Scion line.

* DaimlerChrysler will unveil its Dodge Magnum sport wagon concept, a low-slung V-8 reportedly ready for production.

* Toyota will unwrap the first two production vehicles for its Scion brand -- a line of cars and possibly small trucks that the company hopes will lure more young buyers.

* Mitsubishi Motors Corp. will stage the world debut of the long-awaited Lancer Evolution, the eighth generation of the powerful, rally-inspired Lancer Evo.

Among European brands, show planners say, BMW will present its Alpina, a spinoff with automatic transmission of the $160,000 Z8, to be produced in a limited edition for one year; Jaguar will stage the initial North American showing of its redesigned aluminum-bodied 2004 XJ sedan; Volvo will show its V70-R sport wagon; Porsche will introduce its first sport utility vehicle, the 2004 Cayenne, to the U.S.; and Volkswagen similarly will introduce its first SUV, the Touareg.

In addition, the Mercedes-Benz Maybach luxury sedan will make its first West Coast appearance, and the DaimlerChrysler luxury division will present the North American debuts of its AMG-tuned supercharged C320 coupe and sedan. Ferrari's 660-horsepower Enzo will make its first showing in the States, as will Audi's redesigned A8 sedan.

Though that's an impressive list, the auto companies still save their biggest bangs for the Detroit show, which draws far more national and international media attention than the L.A. show.

The domestic automakers will deliver several firsts in Motown. Ford, for example, will show the long-awaited redesigned F-150 pickup and the prototype for the 2005 Mustang, and DaimlerChrysler will present various concept vehicles as well as the redesigned Dodge Durango SUV.

General Motors will unveil two mid-size pickups -- a Chevrolet and a GMC -- to replace the aging S-10; the Chevy Equinox compact SUV; and new versions of the Chevy Malibu and Pontiac Grand Prix. The automaker's Cadillac luxury division will present two new concepts: the XLR roadster and the SRX sport utility.

From Japan will come Nissan's first full-size pickup and its Infiniti FX45 sport wagon, a "crossover" offering features of both cars and trucks; Toyota's redesigned Sienna minivan and Lexus RX 330 SUV, which will replace the best-selling RX 300; a new luxury sedan from Honda's Acura division; and Mitsubishi's Endeavor crossover SUV.

With the split-up of the British luxury team of Rolls-Royce and Bentley -- Rolls is now owned by BMW, while Volkswagen retains the Bentley brand -- the first Roller to come in under the BMW banner will bow, as will a VW-produced Bentley, the Continental GT coupe.

The Detroit show also is expected to generate news about hybrid vehicles and new engines for cars and trucks.

GM is expected to announce plans to launch a wide array of hybrid vehicles in almost all its product lines in the next few years. Toyota reportedly is readying hybrid versions of its Highlander and Lexus RX 330 SUVs.

Still, all that news in Michigan should not detract from the Los Angeles show's importance to everyday motorists. Nearly 1 million people attend each year, making it one of the top three auto shows in the country.

Southern Californians in the market for new cars, pickups and SUVs can comparison-shop at the Los Angeles Convention Center from among more than 1,000 models for 2003 and '04, with no interference from salespeople. The Times will return as the show's media sponsor.

As in past years, a separate hall will be devoted to aftermarket equipment such as custom wheels, body-styling kits, exhaust systems and other add-ons. There will be displays of concept cars and a special Aston Martin exhibition featuring vehicles from the James Bond films.

The show, through Jan. 12, is a privately owned production endorsed by the Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Assn.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 432 words Type of Material: Correction Luxury car -- A Jan. 1 article in Highway 1 said that Mercedes-Benz's new Maybach luxury sedan was scheduled to make its first West Coast appearance at the Greater L.A. Auto Show this month. In fact, a Maybach was available for private viewing at the Pebble Beach Concours d' Elegance in August.
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