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2007-11-14 08:35

Tangi Quemener

The Los Angeles Auto Show gets underway Wednesday with carmakers aiming to showcase eco-friendly or fuel-efficient cars, as world oil prices threaten to smash the $100 a barrel mark.

Around one million people are expected to visit the 12-day show, regarded as the second most important event of its kind in the United States behind January's annual exhibition in Detroit.

Roughly 14 million of Los Angeles' 16 million people are drivers, with an average of 3.1 cars per household in a metropolitan area covering 12 500 km that is criss-crossed by hundreds of kilometres of freeways.

In the city's millionaire enclaves like Beverly Hills, Malibu and Bel Air, luxury Italian sports cars, sleek German-made limousines or hulking American 4x4 are often the vehicle of choice.

"The car means more to people in Los Angeles than it means to other people in the world," said Leslie Kendall, a curator of the Petersen Museum, which is dedicated to cars. "You are what you drive in LA," Kendall added.

"The car is another layer of clothing that you put on after you get dressed."

While Los Angeles is the world's leading entertainment industry hub, southern California is also home to some of the motoring industry's top creative talent, with several leading manufacturers such as Mazda, Audi and Nissan basing design offices in the region.

Ford chief executive Alan Mulally will give the opening address at this year's show, which will witness the world premieres of 14 cars and prototypes, and the North American debuts of around 30 others, including offerings from Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Jaguar.

But with California currently embroiled in a campaign aimed at slashing greenhouse gas emissions, this year's show will also see environmentally conscious cars going in the shop window.

As well the exhibition's annual "Green Car of the Year Award", the show will see Cadillac present a hybrid version of its gas-guzzling Escalade 4x4, a hydrogen-powered car from Honda and a plug-in hybrid of Volvo's C30 coupe.

With escalating oil costs sending prices at the pump soaring, another theme of the show will be new diesel-based vehicles which are capable of meeting California's stringent emissions standards, notably a Volkswagen Jetta.

BMW, Mercedes and Audi have already announced diesel cars for 2008-2009 that comply with California law.

In a further sign that carmakers are trying to change the mindsets of American drivers who for years have tended to favor over-size, fuel-hungry behemoths, Volkswagen will give a world premier to its tiny smart car.

A competitor, DaimlerChrysler's two-seater Smart Fortwo, which has already found success in several European cities, is to go on sale in the United States from early 2008, and has already attracted 30 000 orders.

This year's LA Motor Show takes place against a backdrop of deep depression in the US motor industry, which has been rocked by threats of strikes, job losses and a share of the market that has shrunk from 95% to less than 50% in the past 50 years.


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