Eco is a star of the show

Fuel economy is on display at the sprawling Los Angeles Auto Show, opening to the public Friday, and it's not just cool new plug-ins, hybrids and electric buggies.

General Motors Co., once a symbol of gas-guzzling, carbon-belching driving, was there at Thursday's media preview with its Chevrolet Volt winning an award for "green car of the year" and also offering some hints on how its vast array of sedans, sport utility vehicles and sports cars will meet ever more stringent fuel economy standards.

Other manufacturers showing fuel efficient vehicles included Hyundai, which unveiled the new Elantra, which will get 40 miles per gallon in highway driving. Kia displayed the Optima mid-size hybrid sedan, also expected to get 40 mpg on the highway.

Visitors to the show at the L.A. Convention Center in the next 10 days will see a range of eco-friendly cars. They include the Volt, which uses a gas engine to generate electricity when the batteries run out, and Nissan's Leaf, a pure electric car that runs only on battery power. Other manufacturers, including Honda, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Volkswagen, are showing off electric vehicles they plan to bring to the market in future years.

GM displayed a Buick LaCrosse sedan with a modest hybrid powertrain that it said would become the base version of the full-size sedan next year, greatly raising fuel economy. Automakers are looking for ways to ramp up fuel efficiency to comply with rising fuel-efficiency regulations down the road.

In April the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that automakers' fleets of cars, SUVs and minivans will have to average 35.5 mpg by 2016.

The Buick system, which it calls eAssist, uses a lithium-ion battery, an electric motor generator and regenerative braking to recapture energy and lift the LaCrosse's fuel economy by an estimated 25% to 25 mpg in city driving and as much as 37 mpg on the highway.

The mileage gains are significant for the LaCrosse, a large sedan that sells for about $30,000 and competes in the so-called near luxury or premium segment of the auto market.

"It's the same engine we have in the car now. We are just adding an electric power boost," said Daryl Wilson, a senior engineer on the LaCrosse program.

The engine and hybrid system combine to generate an equivalent of approximately 180 horsepower, according to GM. It will be available in the middle of next year.

Buick is also making other subtle improvements to the LaCrosse such as panels on the underside of the car that will increase its aerodynamic profile and improve mileage.

Buick's move points to how automakers will be adding hybrid systems to existing vehicles and powertrains to improve fuel economy, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with auto information company Edmunds .com.

"Once you have that technology down pat, it is easy to introduce it across your product line," Caldwell said.

Other high points as the show's two-day media preview concluded on Thursday:

* Chrysler resurgence: Chrysler Group, which has had a dearth of new products over the last year, unveiled its totally redesigned 200 sedan for 2011. The car was previously known as the Sebring, a rental-fleet mainstay.

The 200 has all-new sheet metal and is powered either by a four-cylinder engine or by what Chrysler calls the Pentastar V-6. The base 200 LX will start at $19,995 with a four-cylinder, while the volume seller probably will be the Touring model, which starts at $21,995.

Other new and updated models include the Dodge Charger, Dodge Journey, Dodge Grand Caravan minivan, Dodge Durango SUV and the Dodge Challenger muscle car.

"I think we have now turned the corner on product, and that is an important piece of the puzzle," said Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of both Chrysler and Italian automaker Fiat. "We needed the product to get this machine running again."

After a 27-year absence from America, Fiat displayed its tiny Fiat 500, which goes on sale next year. It looks like a stylish small car with an interior that could have been manufactured by some high-brow Italian shoe or handbag manufacturer.

* Hyundai's new compact: Hyundai capped a successful 2010 by unveiling the 2011 Elantra. Hyundai has been gaining market share in the U.S. and is on track to set a sales record of more than 500,000 vehicles this year.

The Elantra compact features a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine putting out 148 horsepower and will be offered with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Hyundai touted the Elantra's class-leading fuel economy of 29 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. Pricing starts at about $15,000.

* Macho cars: British automaker Lotus said it planned a range of five new sports cars intended to compete with offerings from Ferrari and Lamborghini, but at much lower prices. Lotus also said that it would produce hybrid versions of its sportsters, and that, for the first time, it would build an engine of its own for IndyCar racing.

Porsche unveiled a performance version of its mid-engine Cayman coupe, called the Cayman R. It features a 330-horsepower, six-cylinder engine and is 121 pounds lighter than the Cayman. Porsche says it will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds with its seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Times staff writers Susan Carpenter, Shan Li, Nathan Olivarez-Giles and David Undercoffler contributed to this report.

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