LA Auto Show: 5 to Watch

Detroit’s top executives have other obligations this week, but in Los Angeles, the auto show must go on. In addition to electric-vehicle infrastructure initiatives, hybrid and all-electric vehicles figure large among more than 30 North American and world premieres at this year’s event, which opens to the public tomorrow. These five models stand out from the herd in terms of affordability, design — and likely time to market.

Mini E: Early next year, BMW plan to lease 500 prototypes of these all-electric coupes for year-long test drives in New York, New Jersey and California. A timeline has yet to be established for full-scale production, but relative to other EV developers, BMW is moving fast. A heavy lithium-ion battery pack takes only three hours to charge with a special “wallbox unit,” and can power the car for up to 150 miles, the company reports. Downside: The batteries eliminate backseat space found in the Cooper S model, the basis for the Mini E.

Renault Nissan: As we reported earlier today, Nissan hopes to take EVs to the mass market by way of infrastructure development partnerships. A battery leasing program planned for the as-yet-unnamed vehicle in Nissan’s pipeline could make it competitive with conventional gas-powered cars — especially if fuel prices resume their pre-recession climb.

2010 Ford Fusion: The next-gen Ford Fusion, a sedan with technology similar to that of the Escape Hybrid, is one of six new models being showcased by the cash-strapped automaker at this year’s show. Some critics have questioned whether Ford can afford so much product development, but at an estimated 39 mpg, the 2010 Fusion could give the company a vehicle that budget-conscious drivers actually want to buy.

Honda Insight: Though the new Insight remains in concept phase, Honda hopes to have the relaunch of its once-expensive two-door include a price “significantly below” that of hybrids now on the market. Planned features include real-time and cumulative feedback on driving technique and fuel economy. More technical details can be found in our earlier post.

Chevy Silverado Hybrid: If the Prius still brings to mind wimpy environmentalists, GM’s new pickup trucks could add some beef to popular notions of hybrid owners, starting with the 2009 Chevy Silverado. The engine doesn’t rumble, of course, but the company claims this hybrid full-size truck can haul up to 6,100 pounds. Just how long it can manage that weight before the old gasoline kicks in remains to be seen.

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