2011 Los Angeles Auto Show Preview

In a week, auto journalists from around the world will converge at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the opening of the annual Los Angeles Auto Show. What they will expect to find are yet more hybrids, plug-ins and electrics since California, often called “the land of fruits and nuts,” has gained a justified reputation as a place that is more than friendly to alternative types of transportation. Certainly, as was so famously said on “Seinfeld,” there’s nothing wrong with that. Many eco-friendly cars will be introduced, but what the auto writers might not expect is the number of new performance-oriented cars they will see. Here is a look at three of the hottest rides that will be displayed in Los Angeles.

Zenvo ST-1 50S
Talk about “limited-production!” Only 15 of the $1.8 million Zenvo ST-1 50S cars will be manufactured, and only three will be sold in the United States. The supercar is completely hand-built by Danish craftsmen. The research and development for the prototype was started in 2004 by Jesper Jensen and Troels Vollertsen, so no one could say they are rushing the car to market. It is powered by a turbocharged and supercharged 7-liter V-8 engine that will wring out 1,250 horsepower and 1,050 pound-feet of torque. Tests reportedly indicate that its top speed is 233 miles per hour -- just the thing for running out to pick up a loaf of bread. When it comes to comfort and convenience -- something you could justifiably expect in a $1.8 million car -- the Zenvo features keyless entry, satellite navigation, a power telescoping steering wheel and electronically adjustable leather racing seats.

Subaru BRZ Concept STI
OK, the name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. BRZ STI? Can’t a few numbers and/or an animal name be worked in there somewhere? Nevertheless, the car that is attached to all those letters is pretty cool. The precursor to the production BRZ, the concept provides very broad hints at the car that will be Subaru’s first-ever rear-drive vehicle. Power will be provided by the all-new FA 2.0-liter naturally aspirated boxer-style four-cylinder engine. The inherently low center of gravity offered by the engine will be enhanced by its placement low in the chassis for better balance. The BRZ Concept STI also features a full-on Subaru Technica International (STI) suspension, substantial Brembo brakes, one-off 18-inch alloy wheels with 215/45 performance tires in front, and 245/45 tires in the rear.

Fiat 500 Abarth
Of course you remember that Carlo Abarth started his association with Italian automaker Fiat in 1952, building a wild-looking, rocket ship–inspired concept car for the Turin Auto Show called the Abarth 1500 Biposto. Fiat absorbed Abarth -- the company, not the man -- in 1970. Since then, Abarth has become the cool cousin of many a Fiat model. The latest to receive the Abarth treatment is the Fiat 500, and a U.S. specification of the Fiat 500 Abarth is expected to be displayed at the Los Angeles show. The Fiatistis are being very cagey about the car, but we bet it will be powered by the Fiat 1.4-liter multiair four-cylinder engine equipped with turbocharging to develop something like 150 horsepower. It will feature special body pieces to distinguish it visually, as well as a sport-tuned suspension with larger wheels and tires to help it go fast through turns.

2010 Los Angeles Auto Show Images: Getty Images

The 2000 Auto Show Season Crashes Over Us

An auto show. In many ways it's like looking at a fun-house mirror. Sure, it reflects your image and likeness, but at the same time it alters the reality. It's amusing, enjoyable and sometimes a little creepy, revealing at once too much and too little. That's exactly what auto show season is like for the car-buying public. Each year at the major auto shows in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York, the world's car industry holds up a giant mirror of the culture that pretends to show us what we want and even what we are. (If indeed we are what we drive.) The whole process is full of glitz and glitter barely covering the cutthroat competition that lies beneath the surface. The shows are designed to intrigue us, to titillate us and get us in a buying mood, and the 40 or so brands that show their wares are hoping against hope that their set of designers and engineers have captured the popular taste and the realities of our lifestyles better than every other set of designers and engineers.

If the goal of the auto shows is to reflect the culture and spit it back in buyable form, then one thing is certain. Vehicle designers are absolutely convinced we're getting older. In fact, not just older, but fatter, stiffer, crankier and a lot less agile, too.

How do we come to this rather unflattering conclusion? Simply because the trend of longer, lower, wider has been replaced by taller, squatter and easier to get into. Fact is, the new designs, for the most part, reflect what the demographers are telling us. The population as a whole is aging, the Baby Boom snake going through the python is well into middle age and even sports machines as exotic as Ferrari are bowing to the reality that many of us can't bend like we used to.

One huge trend that continued in this year's Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows was the boom in sport utility vehicles. They came in great numbers from domestic and import manufacturers alike. Among the most notable, Acura debuted its MD-X, a sport-utility designed to do battle with Lexus's incredibly successful RX-300, while Ford and Mazda introduced twin small SUVs called the Escape and Tribute, respectively. Pontiac launched its foray into the SUV wars with the Aztek, an original (ungainly) looking concoction that seems part GI Joe toy and part Pontiac LeMans.

Be they gorgeous or goofy, an attribute all these vehicles share is the fact that they are built on car platforms. So while they might look like a truck (and quack like a truck?) they are really more accurately "tall cars" than rugged off-road haulers. They offer the proverbial chair-like seating position; they are easy to get in and out of; pretty darn comfortable; and they carry a lot of stuff. Just the thing, it seems, for a population that is getting older, has "made it," and possesses a bunch of things to take along.

Another trend goes hand-in-hand with the first -- the civilized pickup truck. Flash back to a year or two ago when the pickup truck was the last bastion of the lonesome cowboy. Back before the turn of the century, a guy's truck was his castle. Most likely if he owned one he was single, because there was no way a family of more than two-and-a-half could find any satisfaction in owning a pickup truck. But in just a blink of an eye, the pickup truck has been tamed, domesticated and turned into a family car.

The first insidious move in that direction was the "extended cab," but that was just the tip of the cowboy boot in the door of a new breed of pickup trucks. Then came the four-door "crew cabs" with seats for six (SIX!) And this auto show season saw the tide moving still further in the taming of the pickup truck. For example, the Chevrolet Avalanche has a full-size sports-utility-style cabin with a short pickup truck bed that will allow it to haul the occasional bale of hay. Ingeniously, it also has a fold-down rear panel that allows the bed to handle longer cargo, but let's face it, how often will it be used to transport barbed wire versus the time it will be used to transport Cub Scouts on their way den meeting? Another macho bastion has fallen.

A final bow to the aging of the populace, as demonstrated at the auto shows, is the resurgence of the two-seat sports car. But, surely, you say, the re-birth of the sports car must be an anti-aging harbinger, a bow to youth. And how wrong you would be.

Today's sports cars aren't designed for twenty-something versions of Martin Milner and George Maharis ready to chuck it all and take off down Route 66. Instead, they are designed for us fogeys who are old enough to remember Martin Milner, George Maharis and Route 66. Today's twenty-somethings don't have a clue about any of the three.

There was a time when two-seaters were designed for the young with forward-looking styling that was on the cutting edge. But the common ground of the most important two-seaters that were introduced at this year's major auto shows was nostalgia.

The BMW Z8, which will be built in limited quantities, did nothing but put a beautiful new spin on some poodle-skirt and penny-loafer era themes. From its shark nose to its simple wall-to-wall dashboard this car screamed "Fifties" - both the decade and the age of its potential drivers. It even has neon taillights, for heavens sake! And you'd have to be into an advanced decade to want to pony up a hundred-grand-plus for its retro look.

The other very notable two-seater shown this year was the Jaguar F-Type. Now how big a leap is that from the classic E-Type of the Sixties? More like a well-calculated baby step, actually. Again, as with the Z8, nostalgia is the order of the day, though with a projected price tag far lower than the BMW, a forty year old might have some hope of purchasing the successor to the car that helped make Austin Powers the International Man of Mystery.

Of course, the auto show season isn't over. Chicago's show will bow in a week, and New York won't present its wares until Easter time. But one thing seems sure. The aging of America hasn't escaped the world's auto makers, and I, for one, am a little bit depressed about it. I think I'll settle back in my easy chair, stick my feet in a bucket of epsom salts, have a warm glass of milk and try to remember my youth. Pass the ginko biloba, okay?

-- Jack R. Nerad

Among his many jobs Nerad served as editor of the car dealer publication Automotive Age and director of publications for J.D. Power and Associates. He frequently comments on the auto industry for CNN.

A Candy Store for Car Nuts

It happens every November right around Election Day. In fact there are automotive aficianados who haven't voted in more than a decade because their most important week of the year comes the first week of November. The cause of this unintentional slap in the face of democracy? It's the annual Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show, which, combined with the International Tire Expo, draws 90,000 of the biggest names in the specialty automotive world to Las Vegas.

If it were open to the public, one could only guess at the kind of attendance total the show would rack up, but SEMA is a "trade-only" show, which means you must somehow be connected to the automotive industry or the auto repair and modification business to attend. The show has grown from a tiny collection of "hot rodders" selling speed equipment to one another in the Fifties to one of the pre-eminent auto trade shows in the world. Not only does the show draw nearly 100,000 attendees, tens of thousands of those attendees come from overseas to see what American companies have to offer the automotive enthusiast. The 1999 SEMA Show - ITE was held in conjunction with Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week, one of the largest trade events in the world.

Far from being a collection of overgrown delinquents who want to terrorize their neighborhoods by hopping up their cars, the Specialty Equipment Market Association has matured into an organization that represents a $21.2 billion industry. Despite prediction of doom at the hands of government regulators, the specialty equipment market is thriving and has experienced almost 10 percent growth over the past year, far outpacing the national average.

SEMA's 3,600 member companies employ more than three-quarters of a million workers. These companies manufacture, distribute and sell products and accessories for at least seven diverse niches within the marketplace, including light trucks (typically two-wheel-drive pickups, vans and SUVs), off-road (four-wheel-drive) vehicles, racing and street performance vehicles, street rods, restored cars and trucks and restyled vehicles.

"We are very bullish on the opportunities available for our corporate members at this year's show. Our industry's growth indicates that consumers continue to strive to personalize their vehicles to their individual tastes," said Charles R. Blum, president of SEMA.

This year's show delivered the latest innovations for specialty and custom automotive products, from custom wheels to colored tires to roof-top racks to chemical "engine treatments." If you could put it on, in or around your car, it was on display in one of the 6,000 exhibitors' booths that filled the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Many of the more than 1,400 exhibiting companies, including the domestic and many import automobile manufacturers, choose this venue to unveil their newest and hottest products and vehicles, and more than 800 new products were on display at this year's show.

Cutting Edge of Trends

In years past the domestic and import car manufacturers shunned the SEMA Show, looking down their collective nose at the performance aftermarket. But as that aftermarket grew into a multi-billion-dollar portion of the automotive business, car manufacturers changed their tunes. For one thing, they decided it was good business to capitalize on the enthusiasm the aftermarket manufacturers and their customers showed for their vehicles. After all, who is more enthusiastic about the brand of car he (or she) owns than a hot rodder? And for another, after doing business with specialty aftermarket suppliers, they found that there were profits to be made by both sides.

Out of this has grown a new cooperation between manufacturers and the specialty market, a cooperation that is so strong that at this year's show both Ford Motor Company's Jacques Nasser and General Motors Corporation's Richard Wagoner were on hand to make major announcements. Chrysler design head Tom Gale was also at the show to present design awards and unveil concept vehicles, and DaimlerChrysler used the SEMA Show as the occasion to announce the elimination of its Plymouth brand, a brand that had produced such car-enthusiast favorites as the Road Runner and the Barracuda. Ford's news was nearly as stunning. It announced an unprecedented deal to share what had previously been proprietary information with SEMA and SEMA member companies. Ford hopes the arrangement will give it a strong leg up in courting the performance enthusiast by making legal performance parts more readily available through the Ford retail network.

Meanwhile the 1999 SEMA Show provided a landmark for Honda -- the first-ever American Honda exhibit at the show. Honda Civics and Accords have become the favorites of a new generation of performance enthusiasts who have spawned a sizable industry in go-fast and appearance parts, but this year was the first time American Honda officially acknowledged that market with a display at SEMA.

The display featured Honda and Acura-brand parts and accessories and tricked-out Acura and Honda vehicles. To celebrate Honda's 1999 manufacturer's championship in the CART FedEx Championship Series, Honda displayed the Champ car driven by 1999 PPG Cup Championship Winner and Rookie of the Year Juan Montoya. Honda-powered CART driver Paul Tracy was also on hand SEMA for an autograph session.

The trio of tricked-out Honda vehicles at the show included a new Honda S2000 roadster that featured an underbody spoiler kit, aero screen, titanium shift knob and interior upgrades. A modified Acura 3.2TL carried custom wheels, performance tires, front and rear under-body spoilers and an enhanced exhaust system. Adding to the TL's already sporty appearance was a lowered suspension package, which included performance springs, stabilizer bars, shocks and struts. The interior featured the DVD-based Acura Navigation System and two additional rear seat LCD video screens linked to a video disc DVD system and a Sony PlayStation.

One of the favorite vehicles of current generation "hot-rodders," the Civic Si was modified by four magazines -- Super Street, Sport Compact Car, Popular Mechanics and Car and Driver -- as part of a competition to see which publication could best modify the Si into the ultimate conversion vehicle. All four magazine's efforts were put on display at the SEMA show, including the winning Si modified by Super Street.

Both the floor of the Convention Center and the sidewalks surrounding the Las Vegas Center were so filled with concept vehicles and modified production cars and trucks that it was impossible to count them all, lot less catalog the innovations. But the biggest trend seemed to be toward higher-grade, better-conceived vehicle personalization for both cars and trucks. And trucks drew an ever-larger share of attention as the new truck, van and sport utility market continues to boom.

Barnard follows the performance car and truck market from his home in Texas.