December 4, 2009 at 1:02 am

Scott Burgess: Los Angeles Auto Show

Audi's A3 TDI is Green Car of the Year

Diesel's power, 42 mpg point to industry's future

The 2010 Audi A3 TDI was named Green Car Journal's Green Car of the Year. (Green Car Journal)

Los Angeles -- I hate California.

I once lived here and even graduated from college here, but I don't have to like it.

Its fancy 70-degree weather, its eternal optimism, its movie star governor and other things rub me wrong. The state has lots of ideas but no one sweats when they work here, and they go to doctors for calluses. I just don't trust that.

And there's a pretentiousness about saving the environment with fuel-efficient hybrids that turns my motor oil cold. Horsepower, performance and fun should not become automotive obscenities.

So when the 2010 Audi A3 TDI, with its "clean diesel" engine, won the 2010 Green Car Journal's Green Car of the Year award Thursday on the second day of the Los Angeles Auto Show, I was pleasantly surprised.

I thought for sure the 2010 Toyota Prius would capture the award. Everywhere you look in LA, a Prius quietly buzzes along the surface streets and in car pool lanes. Nothing spits "California" more than the Prius.

The Prius, however, will not save the planet. The Chevrolet Volt won't save it either. Nor will the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid.

No, the greening of the U.S. auto fleet will begin with many of the small and fuel-efficient vehicles launched and honored at this show. The Chevy Cruze, the Hyundai Sonata, Volkswagen Golf TDI and the Ford Fiesta are more important for the environment and the car companies.

These are big-volume vehicles, and that means Mother Earth and all those Californians who think they are protecting her can cool their jets a little longer, and, more importantly, the carmakers will make some money.

These vehicles demonstrate a sea change in thinking. Hybrids may gather the most PR, but petroleum still fuels our engines and it will for decades. Carmakers are changing their thinking about all of their vehicles -- V-8s are rarely standard anymore and some vehicles won't even offer a V-6 in the future. The Sonata and the Buick Regal, for example, are strictly four-bangers.

"The V-8 is no longer the American standard," said Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Global Insight.

These big engines will remain but will be relegated to trucks and a few performance cars.

Everything has changed because consumers have changed.

"Green is no longer progressive," said Johan de Nysschen, Audi of America's president, while accepting the Green Car of the Year award. "Green is expected."

The 42-miles-per-gallon A3 TDI is quick and fun and will power you through tight corners until you shout.

Other drivers will be green with envy when you drive it around them.

Ron Cogan, the editor and publisher of Green Car Journal, one of the sponsors of the award, noted, "the love of cars and the love of the environment are not mutually exclusive."

Finally, someone said something here that I can agree with.

"Cars like the Cruze and the Fiesta will certainly have a bigger impact on the environment because they will be high-volume vehicles," said Jake Fisher, senior engineer at Consumer Reports.

Both cars will reportedly hit 40 miles per gallon and could average well north of 30 mpg. If they replace vehicles that averaged 20 mpg, that's a third less CO2 released into the atmosphere.

All told, out of the 900 vehicles on the L.A. Auto Show floor, 50 were hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles -- 5.5 percent of all the vehicles. These are the electric cars, diesel and flex-fuel trucks, gas-electric hybrids and everything in between.

Ed Kim of AutoPacific said it will take until 2012 before 5.4 percent of the car-buying public buys this many alternative fuel vehicles, not including heavy-duty pickups. By 2014, that number will be 7.1 percent.

"In order for that to be considered mainstream, the number needs to go to about 20 percent," Kim said.

In other words, all of this hoopla is much ado about very little.

And people won't necessarily want to give up power for the sake of fuel efficiency, Fisher said.

"Every consumer survey we do, people who have a more powerful version of any particular model are more satisfied with it than people who have the four-cylinder version," he said. "Really, what people want is everyone else to drive the four-cylinder model."

It's another idea I agree with. And it serves two purposes. It would help the environment and make my car faster than everyone else's.

It may sound a little hypocritical, but that's OK, I'm in California.

Audi of America President Johan de Nysschen accepts the Green Car of the ... (Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)
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