by Jeremy Cato

Los Angeles, California – Horsepower. Horsepower again. And then some more of it. From the V-8-powered Chevrolet Impala (300 hp) to the massively gutsy Dodge Viper coupe (500 hp), to…well, it would have been hard to swing a cat in the Los Angeles Convention Centre and not hit some new model or the other that can’t rip from 0-100 km/h in seven seconds, six seconds, five or less.

Frankly, it puts this car scribe in the uncomfortable position of having to say it all smacks of a decided lack of imagination. Yes, the Los Angeles Auto Show is a much less important venue than the Detroit show, which comes a few days later, but this is just a little sad – especially when you consider how creative and interesting L.A. car culture is. There is much more to the Southern California auto scene than bored out small blocks and crackling headers.

I mean, we are talking about the town that gives us the delightfully bizarre cable TV show “Pimp My Ride.” In fairness, the Pimps showed up, working for General Motors of all people.

West Coast Customs' HHR
West Coast Customs’ HHR. Click image to enlarge

L.A.-based West Coat Customs came here to show us a “tuner” version of the Chevy HHR – for Heritage High Roof – which looks like a three-quarters version of ’49 Chevy Suburban, steals its bulging fenders straight off the Chevy SSR and rides on the basic mechanical pieces of a Chevy Cobalt compact car. It is a smart move because West Coast Customs talks to people – young, trend-setting California car nuts – who generally see GM as an un-hip symbol of America’s rusting industrial power.

Interestingly, GM won’t put the HHR on sale until this summer and already critics from Newport Beach to Kalamazoo are carping. They whine that the HHR is a rip-off of the now slow-selling, incentivized Chrysler PT Cruiser. Worse, the retro craze epitomized by the PT is sooo last century in that the HHR is arriving in showrooms about half a decade too late.

2006 Chevrolet HHR
2006 Chevrolet HHR. Click image to enlarge

Well, HHR designer Bryan Nesbitt, who GM stole away from Chrysler and is now running design for GM in Europe, is exactly the same guy who penned the PT. Except the HHR is much better executed, and much more functional with its fold-flat seats and tiered cargo bay. And instead of using the sloppy Neon platform which gives the PT such clumsy handling, the HHR has the very solid, very modern Cobalt architecture under its skin. The two four-cylinder engines are rated at 140 and 170 hp.

And the Pimps made a point with their HHR chop job – lopping the roof off the US$1.5 million prototype, lowering it some 75 mm, shaving the door handles, installing a monumental sunroof and tucking in a fancy mesh grille in place of the standard one. If nothing else, the Pimps have proven the HHR can be customized. Theirs is a creative piece.

Even if the pimped HHR is not your taste, it is hard to deny the usefulness of a boxy five-seat HHR crossover with a big tailgate and oceans of cargo room. GM hopes to sell about 100,000 HHRs annually in Canada and the U.S. GM vice-chairman for products Bob Lutz doesn’t think the HHR will sell on its practicality, however.

“If you look at the Malibu and Impala, they’re very good, very sensible vehicles that provide excellent value,” Lutz said. “But you could argue Chevy needs one or two vehicles that provide some emotional appeal.”

Triggering emotions really explains all the focus on horsepower. It is hard to criticize horsepower, but the HHR actually demonstrates that there comes a point when gobs and gobs of it just ceases to be novel and interesting. Here’s what I mean.

2006 Chevrolet Impala SS
2006 Chevrolet Impala SS. Click image to enlarge

Right beside the HHR, Chevy is showing a mildly renovated Impala – the Impala being a popular model with taxi companies. To compete against the daringly styled Chrysler 300 and the startlingly effective packaging and superior fuel economy of the Ford Five hundred, GM has tidied up the Impala’s stodgy look, and that of its coupe sibling, the Monte Carlo coupe.

Both will be available in SS (super sport) versions, powered by a new 5.3-litre V-8 engine. And like the Chrysler 300C with its Hemi V-8, GM’s V-8 has cylinder deactivation to improvement fuel economy. GM calls its system Displacement on Demand and it shuts off four of the eight cylinders when appropriate to save gas, improving fuel economy by up to 12 per cent. For the record, the Impala and Monte Carlo are also getting a new family of V-6 engines for 2006: a 3.5-litre (210 hp) and a 3.9-litre (240 hp).

2006 Dodge Viper SRT10 and 2006 Dodge Magnum SRT8
2006 Dodge Viper SRT10 and 2006 Dodge Magnum SRT8. Click image to enlarge

Yes, V-6 engines were on hand in L.A., but they were absolutely an afterthought at a show where the gearheads ruled. Take the Chrysler Group. It rolled out two new additions to its line of SRT performance cars: the Dodge Viper SRT-10 coupe with its 500-hp V-10 capable of 0-100 km/hour times in the four-second range; and the 425-hp Dodge Magnum SRT-8 station wagon, capable of 0-100 km/h in about 5.5 seconds, maybe less.

Note that this Magnum’s 6.1-litre HEMI churns up 85 more horsepower than the 5.7-litre base HEMI. To manage all the power there is a five-speed automatic transmission with a specially calibrated AutoStick and a heavy-duty prop shaft channels torque to an upgraded differential and axles.

More mainstream were the trio of new models Pontiac unveiled and the long-awaited fifth-generation Volkswagen Jetta. To stretch the G6 midsize lineup, Pontiac is adding a hardtop convertible and a coupe, both seating four people.
The G6 droptop has a Karmann-designed retractable hardtop that, with the touch of a button, lowers in 30 seconds. Power comes from a 3.5-litre, 200-hp V-6 engine for the base version of both cars, while the GTP has a 3.9-litre, 240-horsepower V-6 with a four-speed automatic with manual transmission or a six-speed manual.

The third Pontiac is the made-in-Canada Torrent, which replaces the Aztek. It is Pontiac’s version of the Chevrolet Equinox. The five-passenger SUV comes with the same engine as the Chevy: a 3.4-litre, 185-horsepower V6 made in China.

For a look to the future, it took Korean automaker Hyundai to take the floor. Hyundai showed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Hyundai’s Tucson FCEV, will begin a testing program in just a few weeks. The Tucson FCEV, said Hyundai officials, has twice the driving range of Hyundai’s first-generation fuel cell vehicle, the Santa Fe FCEV.

Hyundai Tucson FCEV
Hyundai Tucson FCEV. Click image to enlarge

Lest anyone think Hyundai isn’t serious about fuel cells, the Tucson FCEV is one of the first fuel cell vehicles capable of starting in freezing temperatures. Testing has proven that the vehicle is capable of starting after being subjected to -20 degrees Celsius temperatures for five days. Other technical advancements include a higher output fuel cell and a new lithium ion polymer battery.

“These advances in our fuel cell electric vehicles are exciting steps forward for our program,” said Kim Sang-Kwon, president of research and development for Hyundai-Kia Motors. “The Tucson FCEV is proof that Hyundai has significantly improved efficiency and quality control in the manufacturing process.”

Volkswagen AG CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder, however, came close to actually dissing fuel cells and gasoline-electric hybrids, too. But he did make a compelling case for the environmental benefits of diesel-powered cars and light trucks. He said VW is working on advanced diesel engines and fuels that emit less carbon dioxide and offer better fuel economy than gasoline-electric hybrids.

“Any significant reduction of fuel consumption under all conditions requires diesel technology,” Pischetsrieder said. “Volkswagen is uniquely positioned to lead in this area.”

Gasoline-electric hybrids, with their complex gasoline engines working in tandem with battery packs and electric motors? They only deliver meaningful fuel savings for motorists in stop-and-go driving.

“On the highway, they use substantially more fuel than modern diesels, and they cost more to produce,” Pischestrieder said.

Pischetsrieder, of course, is anxious to leverage VW’s diesel expertise. VW is one of the world’s largest producers of diesel passenger cars. Ironically, because of their higher emissions, diesels are outlawed in California. Yet he said VW will “promote and advertise diesel engines because we think they are the wave of the future.”

He believes this because diesel-engine cars burning new, cleaner fuels – for instance, diesel made from such materials as biomass derived from feedstocks, like soy – can reduce emissions dramatically overall and are completely neutral with respect to ozone-depleting carbon dioxide. In addition, VW is backing research into liquifying natural gas into a cleaner-burning diesel fuel.

2006 Volkswagen Jetta
2006 Volkswagen Jetta. Click image to enlarge

Pischetsrieder was also on hand when VW unveiled its new Jetta, the first of nine new VW models in the next 18 months to reverse a startling sales slide in Canada and the U.S. The fifth generation Jetta, to go on sale in March, is being made in Mexico on a stronger frame and will feature a five-cylinder, 2.5-litre, 150-horsepower engine. The car is larger and has more safety features and sports a new grille design which VW officials called “the new face of Volkswagen.”

While it will have a fully independent suspension and an optional six-speed automatic transmission, VW is not planning a 500-horsepower version.

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