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At L.A. Auto Show, a big star is a gas-powered engine


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    Engines galore at the L.A. Auto Show.

    - David Weinberg

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    The new, improved internal combustion engine.

    - David Weinberg

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    A new blue Jaguar.

    - David Weinberg

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    BMW unveils new i series

    - David Weinberg

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    Audi's display at the LA 2012 Auto Show.

    - David Weinberg

This week, it's all about cars in L.A. It's that time of year when the car companies unveil their latest models at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show.

If you walked into the convention center and scanned the room, you would think that electric cars and hybrids were a big part of the market. Toyota, Honda and Chevy all unveiled new vehicles. The head of FIAT, Olivier Francois, compared his company's new electric model to a male enhancement drug.

"The blue pill element here is that it not only delivers great performance, it also lasts longer," he said.

In reality, hybrids and electrics make up a very small segment of the market. Even five years from now, they expect to be only 5 percent of the market.

One problem is price. The electric FIAT will cost about $45,000. That's three times as much as the gasoline version. And FIAT will still lose $10,000 on each one it sells.

Another option for consumers looking for affordable fuel efficiency: The internal combustion engine.

"There's almost nothing conventional about the internal combustion engine any longer," says John O'Dell, a senior editor at Edmunds. When he started writing about the auto industry 20 years ago, experts predicted they could squeeze 10, maybe 15 percent more efficiency out of an internal combustion engine. Now he says, "From where we are today, which is way past 15 percent, they are talking 30, 40, 50 percent more out of the internal combustion engine."

In the most elaborate unveiling of the day, Ford corralled hundreds of journalists and executives in an empty parking lot to watch stunt driver Ken Block do donuts in a souped-up Fiesta.

Starting next year Ford will offer a three-cylinder version of the Fiesta that will get up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway and put out more horsepower than its four-cylinder predecessor. Its secret is a turbo charger.

"We're going see more downsizing of engines. The use of turbo charging to make smaller engines more powerful" O'Dell says.

The future, it turns out, may look a lot like the past, just a little smaller.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.
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