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EVs and SUVs as far as the eye can see at Los Angeles Auto Show

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles – The Los Angeles Auto Show opening this week represents two seemingly contradictory trends in one as automakers try appeasing the divergent demands of buyers and governments.

Automakers are debuting a flood of low-volume battery-powered vehicles — headlined by the Ford Mustang Mach-E — as they rush to meet demands for electrification by governments around the world. But the high-volume consumer market is elsewhere, and to satisfy them, gas-powered SUVs will be rolled out by Buick, Mazda, Alfa Romeo, Land Rover and others.

In some cases, the two paths will cross:Toyota and Honda introduce electrified variants of their best-selling RAV4 and CR-V compact SUVs.

Introducing its electric Mustang-badged SUV Sunday night, Ford let a dirty industry word out of the bag: “compliance vehicle.” That's something the automaker did not want the Mach-E to be.

As global emissions standards have grown more stringent over the last 20 years, automakers have electrified vehicles by adding batteries and motors to existing vehicle platforms in order to comply with government rules. Thus the term "compliance vehicle," a pejorative phrase rarely uttered publicly because automakers didn’t want to jinx vehicles they needed to sell.

A sketch of the Volkswagen ID. Space Vizzion electric concept that will premiere Wednesday.

Compliance vehicles in the Ford lineup like the Fusion Hybrid and Ford C-Max were low-volume money-losers, but gained important credits towards government emissions mandates to allow the automakers to continue to sell pickups and big SUVs in markets like California and other highly regulated states.

“We’re starting to see vehicles engineered to go beyond compliance with government regulations like the Fiat 500e that was just sold in California and Oregon,” says Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. “Automakers like Ford and GM are making dedicated platforms for EVs. They are low-volume 'halo' vehicles but they benefit the company’s image.”

Two things have shifted automakers’ thinking in recent years, say industry insiders: Tesla and zero-emissions mandates.

Tesla proved that electric vehicles could be sexy best-sellers. The Model 3 was the top-selling luxury vehicle in the United States last year. Meantime, governments from Europe to China to California have set hard alternative-energy requirements that mandate electric or hydrogen drivetrains.

Ford’s next-generation EV was originally conceived as a compliance vehicle, executives admitted this week. But the prospect of building a performance vehicle for a potential new generation of buyers changed those plans. So Ford leveraged the brand might of its Mustang badge to create the Mach-E SUV.

“The Mach-E has gone from compliance vehicle to hero,” said Jason Castriota, Ford 's EV brand chief. “Our approach to electrification is we’re going to do more of what our customers want – more performance like a Mustang,”

Joining Ford with a brand-redefining EV is Volkswagen and its ID. Space Vizzion concept. In sketches teased ahead of its Wednesday reveal, the VW appears as a sleek, futuristic wagon. VW has shown a number of ID concepts in recent years based on its new MEB electric platform – but this time the automaker promises the production version will be released in late 2021, and will come in different versions for North America, Europe and China.

The bargain EV at the show will be the $30,000 Hyundai Ioniq. The wee Korean’s sticker price hasn’t helped speed slow sales, but the automaker hopes a bump to 170 miles of battery range will help.

Other EV plays here will come from exotic carmakers. These battery-powered rockets fit right in with the LA show's tradition of showing off expensive toys for Hollywood elites.

Audi will show a second fastback version of its ambitious electric e-Tron SUV. And Mercedes fans  will get their first look at the production-spec, $70,000 EQC, the first all-wheel drive electric SUV from the German automaker.

Karma Automotive — a Tesla contemporary that flamed out — continues its comeback here under Chinese ownership. The Revero GTS plug-in boasts 535 horsepower and 550 pound-feet of torque.

Porsche will debut its most affordable Taycan EV yet, the $106,000 4S. Taycan not only meets government wants but offers the market’s fastest electric performance sedan. In an indication of the shifting international landscape, Porsche will also show its 99X Formula E electric race-car as the company turns to battery-powered racing.

None of these fancy-pants cars can carry plywood or pull hay. For that, Detroit-based Bollinger will introduce its rough-and-ready electric pickup with drop-down front and rear tailgates. The 120-kWh battery dwarfs anything in auto today.

On the more mainstream, compliance-play front, Honda and Toyota will debut hybrids that are more integrated into their lineups than ever.

The CR-V hybrid’s introduction continues a trend of mainstream automakers like Ford (Escape Hybrid) and Toyota (RAV4 Hybrid) which have inserted favorable hybrids into their compact-SUV lineups. Toyota is expected to augment its RAV4 hybrid with a plug-in version so that it can fetch the groceries on electrons alone. These utilitarian fuel-sippers are destined to replace the Prius as the best-selling hybrids in the market.

Battery power is the new, new thing, but the money is still made in SUVs that burn good old-fashioned gasoline. America wants them and LA has them.

Land Rover is bringing back its legendary Defender SUV. The outdoors assault-vehicle left the U.S. market in 1997, which is hard to believe since it’s as much the image of the British brand as Wrangler is to Jeep.

Land Rover is bringing back its Defender SUV for 2020.

Expect a much more refined Defender running an a unibody platform, not the body-on-frame truck platform of old. Land Rover says the Defender will be as rock-ready as ever, with locking differentials and torquey engine options. Including Defender, Land Rover now offers seven SUVs, even more than Jeep's six.

After nearly going belly-up in the Great Recession, Buick has reinvented itself as an SUV brand with its tiny Encore and three-row Enclave. That’s a Buick? The new Encore GX premiering Wednesday will slot in between the Encore and compact Envision.

The 2020 Buick Encore GX, which premieres Wednesday in Los Angeles,
will fit in Buick's lineup between the tiny Encore and compact Envision.

Mazda may gets its DNA from the wee Miata sports car, but it too is rushing to fill gaps in its SUV lineup. The Mazda CX-30 will squeeze between the entry-level CX-3 and best-selling CX-5. All-wheel drive will be available, and Mazda’s luxurious interior – first seen on the Mazda 3 sedan – is standard.

Even Italian emigres Alfa and Fiat are in an SUV mood. Alfa will show a freshened Stelvio SUV and Fiat a Sport version of its 500X crossover.

Come to the LA Show for the cool EVs, stay for the SUVs.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.