LA motor show: Car makers revved up for a big sales year

Boom in US car sales sees scramble to announce new products and upgrades

 

The show may not have been the busiest in terms of new metal heading for Irish roads, but there is a scramble among carmakers for US market share as the country heads for what could be its biggest-ever sales year.

The fall in the price of oil is also evident on the show floor with a less than normal focus on “green”, fuel-efficient vehicles and luxury cars. Karl Brauer, an analyst for Kelley Blue Book, the car information service, said he was surprised by the proportion of vehicles being introduced at the LA show that were neither green nor high-performance.

Both categories were traditional focuses for the LA show because California has the US’s strictest emissions standards for new vehicles, and luxury cars make up a higher proportion of purchases than in any other state.

“The redesign and refresh cycles have shortened,” said Brauer, referring to the process by which carmakers conceive and introduce new versions of products. “That means there’s more product activity going on.”

Brauer said some car makers had 10 or more product announcements to make over the next year at the US’s big car shows – in Detroit in January, Chicago in February, New York in March and Los Angeles in November.

“If you’re a manufacturer and you have 10 messages to send this year, you’re going to break them up among the shows as best you can,” he added.

The scramble to introduce new products reflects the continued boom in US car sales. The seasonally-adjusted annual rate of sales for October was 18.1 million, meaning the market could beat the record 17.4 million light vehicle sales achieved in 2000.

However, there are also signs, after a prolonged boom, that sales growth is slowing.

While China has overtaken the US in the number of car sales, profit margins in the US are generally higher, making it the most lucrative automobile market in the world.

Its robust health contrasts with the market in Europe, where carmakers continue to struggle with low margins in spite of a return to sales growth in 2014 after six years of decline.

Here’s a snapshot of what some of the major brands are up to at LA and – more importantly – in the coming months.

Audi

Audi tried hard to move its brand out in front of the Dieselgate scandal with a focus on electric cars and plug-in hybrids, particularly the oft-seen e-tron quattro concept that was in Spain only two weeks ago.

It also fronted up with the hottest versions yet of the RS6, the RS7 and the S8. The S8 Plus arrives in the US with the fastest limousine it has ever made, with the 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 getting a 62kW upgrade to 445kW of power.

If that’s not enough, it will overboost to 750Nm of torque as well, hurling the S8 Plus to 100km/h in 3.8 seconds (down 0.3 seconds).

The top speed is limited to 304km/h. It’s an odd number Audi doesn’t explain, but it does admit it had to extensively upgrade the engine, including new exhaust valves and new internals for the turbochargers.

The whole thing feeds four wheels via an eight-speed auto to the 21-inch forged alloys, and it all rides on air suspension and stops on standard carbon-ceramic brake discs.

The same power output now finds its way into the RS6 and RS7 (though, for reasons Audi can’t explain, it refuses to call the S8 Plus an RS8), though the step-up has been smaller.

Both performance Audis had 412kW to start with, though the 750Nm is a 50Nm boost, and both slash 0.2 seconds from their sprint to 100km/h (now at 3.7 seconds).

Alfa Romeo

The Alfisti went nuts at Alfa’s official return to the US with the (now-delayed) Giulia in LA.

They clawed all over the QV version, with its biturbo 90-degree V6, built by Ferrari.

Others noted Alfa refused to open the boot, with its letterbox entry slot.

Land Rover

The most awaited curiosity trinket at the show was the Range Rover Evoque Convertible.

The car that suddenly made BMW’s X6 look sensible, the Evoque added up to 277kg to the five-door SUV’s mass.

And, significantly, Land Rover never showed it with the roof up – just down.

It proved to be hugely popular and novel, with its 251-litre luggage capacity deep and long, though poorly lit and with an exceedingly small opening.

Due to be on sale in time for the northern spring next year, the Evoque Convertible will be sold at a premium price compared to the current hardtop.

The Convertible is a bit different to the stock car in other ways, too, being a touch longer and a touch wider. And with extra strengthening round the A-pillars and under-body bracing to keep the car’s structural rigidity, there’s been a bit of a weight gain, too – an extra 277kg in the case of the diesel models.

All that extra mass adds 1.3 seconds to the stock diesel’s 9.0-second sprint to 100km/h and the CO2 numbers rise from 129g/km to 149.

Fiat

The fourth-generation Mazda MX-5 has already been a success; now it’s Fiat’s turn to gain the same infectious fun boost from the affordable roadster segment.

When the original MX-5 launched, Fiat had a convertible of its own. It’s long since given up and now it’s turned to Mazda to help deliver the 124 Spider.

Heavily based on the MX-5, the 124 Spider debuted in LA looking a lot less pretty than the Japanese sports car it shares so much of itself with. There are clunky pieces of design, sure, but it looks a lot better in the metal than it does in pictures.

It’s only by walking around the front end that you can see the distinct retro flashes of the original 124, but there are strange touches, too, not the least of which is the clunky Bravo tailgate badge stuck haphazardly atop the boot lid and another one bulging out of the nose.

Initially, the rear-wheel drive 124 Spider will be offered with a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine mated to a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmission. It’s likely the Abarth variant will feature a 1.7-litre turbo-petrol. Each option compares favourably to the MX-5’s 1.5-litre (95kW) and 2.0-litre (118kW) offerings.

Built alongside the MX-5 at Mazda’s Ujina plant in Hiroshima, Japan, the 124 Spider features a longer snout and frontal overhang than the Japanese-branded roadster.

The 124 Spider returns to a nameplate familiar from its 1966 coupe and convertible range, and is the first “real” roadster for Fiat since the left-hand-drive-only Punto-based Barchetta of the mid-1990s. Hyundai Now the seventh-biggest carmaker in the US, Hyundai turned up in LA with its all-new Elantra, expected to be on sale from early next year.

The rest of the world will probably recognise it as an i30 saloon, and it’s been stretched 25mm; Hyundai promises it will be more economical and better handling, with a more rigid chassis and better features.

It’s a car that would perhaps work for some sales in Ireland if it were brought in, although the Elantra name harks back to a time when the brand was very much about budget motoring, far from its current crop of models. An i30 saloon would probably work, though. Probably not a runner in Ireland for the foreseeable future, however.

Lamborghini

The best way to make the Huracan LP570-4 even better is to rip the front differential and driveshafts out of it, apparently.

There is less power and torque, sure, but it’s lighter, has a more aggressive suspension set-up and should be more nimble, just like its predecessor in the Gallardo range.

Mazda

After its predecessor soldiered on with outdated engine technology, the freshly minted CX-9 will be the last of Mazda’s passenger cars/crossovers to score its Skyactive engine technology.

By way of compensation, the seven-seat SUV is also going to be the first Mazda petrol Skyactive engine to be turbocharged.

It’s also a benchmark in other ways for Mazda, with the new car representing the cutting of the last cord to former owner Ford, whose architecture sat beneath the outgoing CX-9. This one is all Mazda, getting an all-new architecture, an all-new engine, an all-new interior and a hankering to be premium.

It’s an important launch for the US market, but don’t expect to see any CX-9s over here anytime soon.

Mercedes-Benz

It was a show of big from Mercedes in LA: big SUV, big roadster, big horsepower.

The facelifted GLS broke cover, though it’s not an all-new model. It’s a facelift of the GL, but smoothed out, manned up and given a new name to bring it into line as the S-Class equivalent in the SUV line-up.

The monster SUV now sits atop the GLE and the GLC, and not before time, with Bentley’s Bentyaga arriving about now, Audi’s Q7 already proving a sales hit and the Range Rover family firmly ensconced as the SUV of choice for the rich.

There was also a wave of love for the iconic SL, which had been largely forgotten internally in the rush to deliver the SLS and GT AMGs to market. It was launched the night before the show at the astonishing private car collection of property developer and hot-rodding icon Bruce Meyer, then unveiled again on the show stand.

Mercedes-Benz has already confirmed it would arrive with two versions from its own stable and two from AMG, which tells you something. The line-up begins with the 3.0-litre V6, confusingly dubbed the SL 400, then runs up through the biturbo V8 SL 500, then the SL 63 AMG and the V12 SL 65 AMG.

The C63 AMG Coupe also made its US debut, though the bigger news came the next day as a fleet of camouflaged, next-generation E-Classes made their way from the LA show to Las Vegas.

Porsche

Everybody’s building track-day specials, but Porsche was really the first to turn it into a business. Now it’s added to the fleets of 911 track-day and one-make racing cars by delivering a ClubSport GT4 version of the Cayman.

For almost a decade, Porsche has tried to officially keep the Cayman in its place as the entry-level road Porsche that wasn’t to be turned into a race car, but you can only hold back reality for so long.

The ClubSport GT4 gets a welded-in roll cage, a scant interior with a carbon-fibre race seat and Schroth six-point harnesses and a fire bomb.

It will race with the 3.8-litre flat six amidships, complete with the standard 283kW/ 420Nm power and torque figures of the GT4 road car.

It loses the manual six-speeder and gains a harder-edged PDK dual-clutch transmission, complete with paddle shifts, and a mechanically locking diff at the rear.

It borrows both its lightweight front and rear strut systems from the 911 GT3 Cup racer and uses the same 380mm brake discs from the 911 GT3, complete with six-piston calipers and a 12-setting anti-lock braking system. Designed as a turnkey racer, the ClubSport should burst to 100km/h in under four seconds.

Subaru

Subaru has outsold BMW in the US so far this year and an all-new Impreza will help it to kick forward again.

After throwing out a five-door concept car at last month’s Tokyo motor show, it popped up again with a slick saloon version in LA, home of SUVs but a graveyard for hatchbacks.

Dubbed the Impreza Saloon Concept, it follows the rules established by the Volkswagen Golf/Jetta siblings by taking a five-door hatch and grafting a boot onto the back.

A lovely-looking machine, it has a roof that rises up over the front seats, then sweeps down to the raised bootlid.

There is a BRZ hint, too, and the concept will be the basis of not only the next Impreza, but also the WRX and the STi versions as well.

These latter two hot-shot versions might keep a front-end look closer to the concept, while Subaru will tone it down for the base models.

There is no word on powertrains for the production version, though you won’t find many pundits betting against a 2.0-litre, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine.

Volkswagen

The Dune was a concept car a year ago, and it was derided for being a set of wheels and a body kit, even though Volkswagen insisted it was inspired by off-road Baja and dune buggies from the 1970s.

And now it’s a production car, giving the embattled German brand a splash of colour in bleak, foggy times.

While it’s mainly being built with the US in mind, there is a chance the Dune’s horizons could expand to Europe by late next year.

Built off the same Golf-based chassis of the Beetle, the retro-styled Dune will hit US showrooms by February next year in both hard-top coupe and soft-top convertible forms.

However, for all the excitement over Dune, there were very few Volkswagen executives present, with one insider suggesting the corporate jet was relatively empty on the way to Los Angeles because of two reasons: first, nobody wanted to be forced into a position where they had to talk about it and, secondly, there were fears of being indicted by US law authorities over the cheating scandals.

“They were acting under legal advice not to take the plane to the US at the moment. There were no assurances that they would have been allowed to leave again,” one source said. “You won’t see many senior executives with scandal-overlap timelines here until this is resolved.”

Volvo

The Swedes didn’t show a new model at LA, but they did show something significant.

Taking the next step from the impressively crafted XC90 cabin, they delivered their idea of what an interior might look like when you no longer need to drive your Volvo.

The Concept 26 was all about giving suggestions and ideas about what ex-drivers should be doing when the world of autonomous driving arrives.

The wing-like dash and interior treatment concept focuses on new seats that are designed to work with the lower cornering demands of autonomous driving, plus delivering Drive, Play and Relax modes.

In Play and Relax, the Concept 26 pulls the steering wheel back inside the dashboard, letting the driver lay the seat back while a display screen takes the wheel’s place. The idea is to let drivers either work or play while the car does the work.