Can Electric Vehicles Rescue Auto Shows?

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at
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With the Los Angeles Auto Show in full swing, it’s time to ask a spoilsport question: After 120 years, has the traditional, brick-and-mortar auto show run its course? From L.A. to Tokyo, Internet leaks spoil the once-breathless suspense of new-car unveilings. Automakers tease and publicize new models days or weeks before they reach the show stage. Real-time, virtual press conferences get people wondering: Why not just move the whole extravaganza online?

Something big needs to happen to get people excited about auto shows again. That something has to be technology, especially the EV’s and semi-autonomous models that get everyday people interested in what car companies are up to, simply by disrupting the status quo.

The L.A. Auto Show has toyed with various identities over the years, as it vied with Detroit for the brightest spotlight among U.S. shows. L.A. has been a luxury-focused show, a green-centric show, and lately has settled on the “Automobility L.A.” moniker. That focus on electric and future tech seems the right medicine for ailing auto shows, as evidenced by the two models hogging all the glory in L.A.: The Ford Mustang Mach-E and the Tesla Cybertruck. Tesla’s long-awaited, Blade Runner-inspired Cybertruck has its glitzy unveiling at Tesla’s Design Center in Hawthorne, California, rather than at the show itself, underscoring how even car companies are so bored with auto-show floors that they’re staging “cooler” events elsewhere in hopes of standing out from the herd.

While this high-profile pair of EV’s attracted most of the attention, the Los Angeles show was loaded with electrified models that, done right, might help make auto shows exciting and relevant again. Here are the highlights:

Ford Mustang Mach-E

Ford Mustang Mach-E reveal
(Photo: Ford)

Whether this electric crossover deserves the fabled Mustang name – or whether it sullies it – is open for debate. The Ford will compete directly with Tesla’s Model Y; will it prove more cannon-fodder for Tesla or will this become the first EV from a global automaker to generate serious sales competition? Marketing machinations aside, the Mach-E looked sporty, sophisticated and intriguing both on paper and onstage. The Mach-E’s California Highway 1 edition brings the requisite, big-ass battery pack, at 98.8 kilowatt-hours, to supply a Tesla-worthy driving range beyond 300 miles. Ford further promises that, with 459 horsepower and 612 pound-feet of torque, the Mach-E will whip to 60 mph in a Ludicrous-like 3.5 seconds. The price seems competitive, at $43,895 to start, rising to $60,500 for GT versions.

Why it’s important: If it succeeds, Ford’s $11-billion bet on electric transportation will begin to look smart.

Tesla Cybertruck

Tesla Cybertruck reveal
(Photo: Micah Muzio)

Let no one say that the Cybertruck is not different, daring, challenging; the Tesla makes a Hummer look subtle. Still, the truck’s brutish, scrapyard-from-Mars styling somewhat overshadowed the usual Tesla ingenuity. (The reveal itself was overshadowed by the “unbreakable” windows that shattered when Franz Von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer, lobbed metal balls at them). That ingenuity includes a dent-resistant, stainless-steel exoskeleton, and a claimed driving range beyond 500 miles for the top-shelf model with three electric motors.

Why it’s important: Can the hard-to-dent Cybertruck dent the sales of Detroit’s pride-and-joy pickups, including Ford’s best-selling F-Series, whose own hybrid and EV versions could beat Tesla to market? At first blush, the Cybertruck’s unconventional appeal will be limited to tech types and EV true believers, rather than traditional pickup loyalists who buy millions of Fords, Chevys and Rams every year. We shall see, but we must also wait, with the Cybertruck still at least two years from production.

2020 Audi e-tron Sportback

(Photo: Audi)

Audi served up this handsomely slope-roofed version of its e-tron electric SUV, with the same 355 horsepower (with 402 horses available during short bursts of acceleration) as the standard, five-passenger version. The Quattro AWD crossover can decouple its front motor while in motion, and the sleeker profile should trim a touch of aerodynamic drag as well.

Why it’s important: The standard e-tron’s major, literal shortfall is its stingy 204-mile driving range. Audi has apparently been listening: This coupe version can use a greater percentage of its 95 kilowatt-hour battery pack, and other engineering tweaks may squeeze a few more electric miles from this version.

2020 BMW X3 xDrive 30e

(Photo: BMW)

The plug-in X3 xDrive 30e combines a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine with an electric motor and battery for 292 horsepower and a swift, 6.1-second run to 60 mph. Expect an all-electric driving range of just over 20 miles, with production in Spartanburg, S.C., beginning in December.

Why it’s important: BMW’s new-generation plug-ins are decisively more efficient and affordable than its earlier efforts. The plug-sprouting X3 show that BMW is serious about offering electrified versions of its best-selling models.

Hyundai Vision T Concept

(Photo: Hyundai)

Hyundai was mum on details of the plug-in hybrid powertrain under the Vision T’s hood. But what’s important here is the muscular geometry of the Vision T’s body. The Vision T (the “T” is the big clue) suggests the styling direction of the next-generation Tucson SUV, which should reach showrooms late next year as a 2021 model.

Why it’s important: There’s nothing blander than the typical compact, cookie-cutter SUV. The Vision T offers hope that Hyundai (and other carmakers) will put as much creativity into the styling of their electrified models, as they do with the technology under the hood.

Karma SC2 Concept

Karma SC2
(Photo: Karma)

On the heels of the SC1 concept that Karma showed in China, the SC2 is a scissor-doored sports car with a claimed 1,100 horsepower from a pair of electric motors along with a 120 kWh battery pack that would seem a tough fit in such a compact machine. The craziest bit is the so-called “Drive and Play” system, which records a driver’s adventures and replays them – when the vehicle is stopped, of course – on a laser projector inside.

Why it’s important: If Karma is to have any chance of survival, it must begin to deliver new cars to market.

2020 Lincoln Corsair Grand Touring

(Photo: Lincoln)

Lincoln’s comfy compact SUV adds its own plug-in option, with a 14.4-kWh battery pack supplying 25 miles of electric range before its 2.5-liter, Atkinson-cycle engine kicks in for a 266-horsepower total. The all-wheel-drive Corsair Grand Touring reaches showrooms this summer.

Why it’s important: Lincoln is riding more momentum, and attention, in the luxury space than it’s enjoyed in decades. Adding a plug-in hybrid option to the Corsair’s repertoire shows that Ford is serious about investing in both Lincoln and electrification.

Toyota RAV4 Prime

(Photo: Toyota)

Toyota’s first-ever plug-in RAV4 is also the most powerful version, with 302 horsepower transmitted through all-wheel-drive, for a claimed 0-60 mph squirt in 5.8 seconds. Toyota is touting a useful 39 miles of all-electric driving range, and a solid 90 mpge rating during EV operation.

Why it’s important: The impressive new RAV4 is America’s best-selling SUV of any type, and its ultra-frugal hybrid version is the most popular hybrid. Expect the plug-in Prime version to keep those RAV4 sales ahead of the competition’s, including an upcoming Honda CR-V hybrid.

Volkswagen ID Space Vizzion Concept

VW Space Vizzion concept
(Photo: VW)

Station wagon fans will have to wait until late 2021 to see it in showrooms, but despite the ditzy-with-a-Z name, the Space Vizzion concept previews a lovely, practical, all-electric wagon. VW says it will return more than 300 miles of expected driving range from an 82-kWh battery. And an AWD version could deliver 335 all-wheel-drive horsepower, making this a dream wagon for people who refuse to succumb to the SUV orthodoxy.

Why it’s important: Volkswagen has committed a remarkable $66 billion to electrified vehicles, as it bids to become the world’s largest producer of electrified cars.

About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at
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