It used to be that car companies would use the Los Angeles Auto Show to debut the sort of cars synonymous with Southern California: swoopy coupes and luxury drop-tops. Meanwhile, the North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit each January, would get the automakers' bread-and-butter (and, more important, bottom-line-driven) products. But the days of $4-a-gallon fuel and endless belt-tightening have led to a shift.
This year, the L.A. show -- which runs Nov. 18 to 27 at the Los Angeles Convention Center -- is scoring plenty of debuts of cars that are less about turning heads on Rodeo Drive and more about getting from A to B in sensible fashion. The exhibition has grown in prestige since 2006, when L.A. moved up its dates to preempt the Detroit event.
During the show, Los Angeles will see the world or North American debuts of more than 50 production and concept cars, plenty of which are the sort of practical vehicles long popular in Europe and Asia but only now being embraced stateside. That doesn't mean these rides aren't head-turners or tech tours de force. But which will Hollywood embrace? Auto product-placement expert Cat Stone, a partner at L.A.-based Stone Management, and Mark McFann, chief marketing officer at automotive oil company Royal Purple, offer their takes on four cars that will likely find their way onto both the small and silver screens.
FIAT 500 ABARTH: The souped-up two-seater gets turbocharged
The Car: The standard Fiat 500 packs only 101 horsepower -- hardly what enthusiasts covet. Enter the company's Abarth version of the two-door hatchback. Set for its North American debut at the L.A. show, the Abarth is expected to feature a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that could put out as much as 160 horsepower, as well as a retuned suspension. It will also look the part, sporting an aerodynamic body kit and the distinctive Abarth badge, which features a scorpion. (Abarth was a race-car maker Fiat acquired in 1971.) Expect a price premium of about $4,000 compared with the standard 500 (see review at right) when the car goes on sale in the first half of 2012. Bet on Fiat spokeswoman Jennifer Lopez appearing in ads touting the Abarth.
The Casting Couch: Stone envisions the Abarth driven by Courteney Cox onCougar Town (ABC) or Yvonne Strahovski on Chuck (NBC): "I look at who is a powerful woman -- it's a sexy car. I picked women that people would want to emulate."
MINI COUPE: The iconic hatchback loses two seats, takes mantle of fastest mini ever
The Car: Since being reintroduced by parent company BMW in 2002, the Mini Cooper has gone on to appear in several variants: There is a crossover, a stretched three-door and even a convertible. But the new Mini Coupe, which went on sale in October and will be on show at the L.A. Convention Center, takes the brand to a new level of sportiness. The standard version puts out 121 horsepower, but a supercharged S model ratchets it up to 181. And the two-seater tops out with a John Cooper Works edition (named after Mini's in-house tuning division) that puts out 208 horsepower. That's good for a 0-to-60 time in the low-six-second range. The JCW version will cost you: It starts at $31,200 -- $10,000 more than the base Coupe.
The Casting Couch: "The Mini was so great in The Italian Job, why not bring it back for The Brazilian Job?" says McFann of the planned sequel to the 2003 heist film.
MITSUBISHI i: The four-door will be the least expensive electric car for sale in North America
The Car: The 2012 Mitsubishi i made its debut at last year's L.A. show, and this year a final production version of the four-door all-electric car will be on hand. The i, which goes on sale in November, will feature a base price of $21,625 after tax credits, about $6,000 less than Nissan's all-electric Leaf. The i's 66-horsepower electric motor propels it to a top speed of about 80 mph; it will have a range of about 62 miles per charge. The four-seater can be fully charged in four hours and charged to about 80 percent full in 30 minutes.
The Casting Couch: McFann says the i would be perfect for Legendary Pictures' Pacific Rim, the forthcoming Guillermo del Toro sci-fi film starring Charlie Day and Idris Elba. The pic is said to feature giant monsters, prompting McFann to note, "I just have this visual of this cute little car getting squashed by a monster like Godzilla."
FORD FOCUS ELECTRIC: The all-electric four-door ride could deliver range of up to 100 miles on a single charge
The Car: General Motors beat rival Ford to the punch in the tech wars with its release of the gas-electric Chevrolet Volt in 2010. However, Ford returns fire with an electric version of its redesigned Focus. The car, which goes on sale in November, features a 123-horsepower motor that propels the four-door to a top speed of 84 mph. Features include an eight-inch touchscreen, a navigation system that calculates routes based on maximizing range and an iPhone application for monitoring the charging status and range. After tax credits, a fully loaded Focus Electric will cost $32,495.
The Casting Couch: Stone thinks the electric Focus makes sense for the "young, hip and quirky" parents on Parenthood (NBC) or for Mary-Louise Parker's Nancy on Weeds (Showtime). "Nancy used to be in a Prius, and this is the new and better version of a green car for her character."
And Now for Something Completely Different …
it's not electric and it's definitely not petite. The production version of the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 convertible will debut as a 2013 model at the L.A. show, packing a supercharged V-8 that puts out 580 horsepower. That's good enough to make it Chevy's most powerful convertible ever. The muscle car, which will go on sale in early 2012, is a solid bet for an appearance in the inevitable next Transformers film -- Camaros have been in the past three. The ZL1 is expected to start at about $47,000. There's no word yet on fuel economy, but if that's of concern, kindly avert your eyes.