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Worst we've seen LA Motor Show

What should have been the main attraction in the car world was reduced to a sideshow as the heads of America's Big Three sat down in Detroit on the same day to beg for the billions they need to stay in business.

There was plenty of shiny new stuff but all the talk was doom and gloom, even from car chiefs who do not have the same live-or-die pressures as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

"I think it is fair to say this is the worst we have seen," the head of the world's fifth-largest carmaker, Carlos Ghosn of the Nissan- Renault alliance, says as he delivers the keynote speech at the opening of LA '08.

"And we are not certain. Is this the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?", Ghosn says of the critical cash crisis which is affecting nearly everyone in the car world.

Still, there is plenty of new stuff and news on the strangely subdued stands in downtown LA.

The latest Ford Mustang, for a start.

And then the world debut of the latest Mazda3 and Lexus RX, the great looking new Nissan 370Z, the updated Porsche Cayman and Boxster, and even a droptop Lamborghini Gallardo LP 560-4.

It's no surprise, either, that some of the special impact in LA is reserved for cars which are chasing the elusive path to a future beyond petrol that satisfies American lawmakers' deepening desire for transport without emissions.

The Mini E is the obvious champion, but LA also has the electric Mitsubishi i-MIEV which is likely to become Australia's first plug-and- go volt car, and all sorts of new-and-old battery-powered concept cars from the Big Three and a growing number of hybrid production cars including the Mondeo-sized Ford Fusion.

As well as the radical looking Honda FC Sport Concept, which was done to prove that a hydrogen-powered future car does not have to look as boring or family as the company's upcoming Insight or the benchmark Toyota Prius.

The show is a mis-hit for General Motors, which canned its concepts and parties, although Ford stays totally committed with a Mustang which makes the running for an event which typically draws around one million visitors in a city which is the car capital of the USA and, by extension, the world.

"I think there is a mixed emotion at the show," says J Mays (SUBS: CORRECT), the design director of Ford Motor Company.

"You still have to try and tug hard enough on the heart strings that people forget about the purse strings. It's a yin-and-yang situation."

Looking over at his Mustang, and across to the Honda FC, Mays expresses what many people are thinking. Even at a time when it is more politically correct to attack the car chiefs, and their private- jet flights to Washington, than to talk about a show which takes another important step towards the world beyond petrol.

"Automobiles are escapism. It's not just transport," says Mays.

"People ask if it's appropriate to launch the Mustang at his time. Damn right it is. It puts a smile on your face and enhances your quality of life."

That is definitely true of the Mustang, which still looks muscular and fresh despite a chassis which trails well behind the Ford Falcon, and the open-air Gallardo and even the second-generation Nissan Cube, which could just make it to Australia one day.

And the 370Z looks tauter than today's 350, with the promise of more go and much better cabin quality, and the Mazda3 is fresh and happy.

The Mini E looks just like the regular petrol-power car but is a milestone car which has the power and range to win people to electric.

"It's an important time in the history of the global car industry," says Carlos Ghosn.

He worries about the impact of the global recession, and the money pressures on carmakers trying to evolve faster than ever before, and the challenges of safety and emission regulations.

But, just like the cars on the LA Show stands, and the regular car people who flood in once the doors are open, he is bottom-line upbeat and bright.

"The one thing that is certain, absolutely certain, is that people will continue driving cars. Cars have no substitute. We have convergence on the issues, but divergence on the solutions," Ghosn says.

And that is pretty much the way things looked in LA.


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