Ford who? Jeep and all-new electric upstart join the pickup pack

Hybrid and EVs are automakers’ current best bet in complying with federal mandates to wean themselves off petrol

NEW YORK • If this week’s Los Angeles (LA) Auto Show were a movie, it might be titled “Chasing Elon”.

Executives at mass-consumer brands will be pulling the clean, green silk covers off at least three brand-new, all-electric machines at the annual auto fete in an attempt to unseat or at least steal some orders from Elon Musk’s Tesla shop.

It’s been that way all year: At trade shows from Detroit and New York to Geneva and Paris, automakers have showed electric hypercars and luxury electric coupes such as the Polestar 1 and Aston Martin Lagonda Vision. There have also been beefy SUVs, including the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen and a hybrid version of Bentley’s big Bentayga.

Hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs) are automakers’ current best bet in complying with federal mandates to wean themselves off petrol, and SUVs and trucks account for 70% of the auto market in North America alone.

But this week in LA, consumers will see a bit more. Along with the 60 expected debuts including — yes — hyper-stylised electrics such as Audi AG’s e-Tron GT and cargo-size SUVs like BMW’s X7, the show will offer attendees a look at facelifts on large luxury sedans, a couple of downright practical (if expensive) convertibles and the latest imagining of a 54-year-old German icon.

“I expect to see a smaller number of all-new global reveals, but the all-new cars introduced will be significant for the brand or the market,” said Stephanie Brinley, lead analyst for IHS Markit research. “We will see variety: Trucks, SUVs, cars, traditional powertrains and alternative powertrains. We will continue to see a greater number of SUV reveals than car reveals, reflecting ongoing consumer demand trends.”

In short, LA has something for everyone.

The Electric Pickup

The first newbie off the line will be an all-electric pickup dubbed the R1T. It’s made by Rivian, a start-up finally poised to hit the market after a nine-year run-up.

It’s one thing to make a sleek, battery-powered sedan for the affluent. It’s quite another to start a company from scratch and try to smash one of the largest and most lucrative bastions of American manufacturing: The market for pickups. If Rivian’s workhorse can silently swipe a tiny slice of the truck pie from Ford Motor Co, Chevrolet and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Ram, it may become a financial juggernaut. The question will be whether the small company has the infrastructure and production power to realistically achieve that goal.

With a motor for each wheel, the R1T is billed at hitting 60mph (96.6kph) in a supercaresque three seconds and being able to tow 11,000lbs (4,989.5kg). Rivian will also show off an all-electric SUV, and it’s not messing around on that front either. The R1S is a Texas-size grocery getter. All of Rivian’s rigs will be bolted together at a former Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois. Deliveries, however, are expected in late 2020 at the earliest.

Other Workhorses to Get Excited About

Another hauler maker, Jeep, has stalled a bit in its mad dash to move two million vehicles a year by 2020, a stated goal from company executives. In 2017, global sales dipped slightly to 1.4 million. The company is renewing its push with product, specifically a long-awaited pickup. The Gladiator is expected to be reconfigured from the bones of Jeep’s ultra-rugged Wrangler, albeit with a small flat-bed in the back. The pitch: Drive over just about anything, and carry some dirt bikes in the back.

In an increasingly commoditised industry, few brands have the gravitas of Jeep, which still trades heavily on its origin story of storming the beaches of Normandy. Since photos of the Gladiator leaked a few weeks ago, Jeep freaks have been buzzing. Expect big crowds at the LA reveal and some kind of outsize driving stunt — a big moment from a brash brand.

Hyundai Motor Co is following BMW AG, Subaru Corp, Volvo Cars Group and others with its Palisade into the supersize SUV race. With eight seats, the vehicle has serious clown-car cred and will likely be stocked with the brand’s best bells and whistles to justify a high price point. Under the skin, don’t expect it to differ much from the Kia Telluride, its corporate cousin.

Not to be outdone, Honda Motor Co will unveil a Costco shuttle of its own in the Passport SUV. The name may be old, but the rig is new. The company already dominates the SUV game with its CR-V; the Passport will be slightly larger, with a third row of seats, though a tad smaller and cheaper than its Pilot.

Cars for Performance Lovers

Although it refuses to confirm rumours to the effect, Porsche AG is expected to show the new model of the 911, the first full update to the sportscar in seven years. (This line will be known to insiders as the 992; the current car is the 991.) As one of the very few cars in continuous production since the 1960s or earlier — count the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette foremost among them — the 911 will have the difficult task of remaining true to the car’s original intent while offering consumers something novel and exciting.

The 8th-generation of the Porsche 911 will make its debut this week in LA. Shown here is the current generation (Source: Porsche)

“If the 911 is in fact shown in LA, it is important as it remains an iconic, excellent sports car,” Brinley said. “The next generation needs to continue that tradition while recognising changes in consumer interest in powertrains and technology.”

So far, early speculation and spy photos said the 992 will have a wider rear body and width over the rear wheels, a slightly longer body and a more-curved front nose than its predecessor. It’s also expected to have staggered wheel diameters from front to back, which will make it look and drive more athletically. And, thanks in part to new aluminium panelling and a new way of mounting the engine, the model will be lighter than predecessors, with improved stiffness across the chassis, better aerodynamics thanks to a larger rear spoiler and a new gearing system that takes the PDK (Porsche Doppelkupplung) shifting from seven to eight gears, like in the Porsche Panamera.

Beasts and Roadsters

Meanwhile, crosstown rival Mercedes will show a pair of its fastest production cars, the AMG GT and the AMG GT R Pro. The latter is a super-aggressively tuned version of AMG’s twin-turbocharged V-8 engine paired with AMG’s seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox. Mercedes has yet to release full specs for the surefire track star, but expect a stiffer suspension, less weight and stickier tyres to provide maximum grip and speed for the vehicle known as the “Beast of Green Hell” — a reference to its dominance at the famous German track, the Nurburgring.

The BMW Vision iNext electric SUV (Source: BMW)

From farther south in Germany, BMW will bring its M340i xDrive, the most agile version of the brand’s popular and long-running 3-Series line. The sedan is expected to have almost 370hp and a turbocharged straight-six engine well-suited to the driving enthusiast who also needs a practical daily driver.

BMW will also unveil a refreshed X5 with slightly pared-back styling across the hood, grille and fenders, but the world premiere of the M850i convertible will likely outshine those debuts. The convertible is the open-air version of the handsome M850i coupe that BMW showed earlier this year. Both have an impressively low, wide stance and long, elegant body; the M850i convertible comes with a V-8, 523hp engine that can hit 60mph in 3.9 seconds. Its fabric roof deploys in 15 seconds. More importantly, it’s one of the few convertibles on the market with folding rear seats, which allow a lot more storage in the rear even with the top down.

Bentley Motors Ltd, too, will show a drop-top in sunny LA: The Bentley Continental GT convertible. Based on the dashing coupe Bentley unveiled in spring, the convertible version will be just as fast and aggressive. It will have more than 620hp, 660-plus lb-ft of torque and a top speed of more than 200mph. It’ll also likely cost considerably more than the US$200,000 (RM838,000) coupe version, too, but its considerable prowess on asphalt will undoubtedly override that price premium — the Continental series of cars is Bentley’s most successful and best-selling line ever.

The Luxe Mob

As for those large SUVs, they’re not going anywhere, even if drivers’ cars steal most of the sex appeal in LA.

“We made the Cullinan primarily because our customers were asking for it, and then there’s the money,” Richard Carter, the director of global communications for Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd, said recently at the SUV’s North American launch. Rolls-Royce won’t have an official presence at the LA show, but it’s hosting off-site gatherings for VIP guests. “This segment is wildly successful and North America is the No 1 market. We figured an SUV would round out our portfolio.”

Indeed. Along with BMW’s world premiere X7, Lexus will show the LX Inspiration, a six-figure, high-end version of its largest SUV, with 21-inch wheels and a blacked-out grille. Lexus is keeping production of the LX Inspiration line to fewer than 500 units. Direct competitor Lincoln Motor Co will show the production version of the Aviator SUV that it first showed as a concept at the New York Auto Show in March. Lincoln has made much of the vehicle, with its three-rows, an optional hybrid drivetrain and a crash-avoidance system featuring sounds created by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (If you drift across the centre lane, for instance, you may hear strings.) The upcoming Aviator will have rear- or all-wheel drive and a twin-turbo V-6 engine.

Finally, Mercedes will set the pace for elegant luxury with its Mercedes- Maybach GLS, a premier SUV with options enough to place it almost on par with ultra-luxury SUVs such as the Rolls-Royce Cullinan and the Bentley Bentayga. It’s expected to riff off the Vision Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury concept shown earlier this year at the auto show in Beijing.

Primary among its tricks will be a chauffeur-focused auto-driving mode and a camera-operated suspension system with forward-facing cameras that read the road ahead, adjusting the suspension in anticipation. Mercedes has used that technology before in the S Class and other Maybach vehicles, but this will be a next-level version of it, a spokesperson said.

The LA Auto Show is held at the LA Convention Centre and will be open to the public from Nov 30 to Dec 9. — Bloomberg