L.A. Confidential

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Los Angeles

Can a motorshow halfway around the world be relevant to us here in Singapore? Judging from the crop of cars released at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, the answer is an emphatic “yes”.

The Detroit show that kicks off each year’s motorshow season might be more famous, but LA’s event has steadily encroached on its eminence, and could well have grown into the most important auto exhibition in North America.

And with importance comes global debuts.

That, along with a slot at the tail end of the calendar year, means that LA gives us an early glimpse at some of the most exciting cars headed for Singapore in 2019. These are the standouts from the City of Angels.

Audi E-Tron GT Concept

Audi’s e-offensive is getting underway. In July the brand launched the E-Tron quattro battery-powered Sport Utility Vehicle (think electric Q5 or, if you like, a direct rival to Jaguar’s I-Pace), and at LA Audi launched this four-door grand tourer concept car.

The E-Tron GT, when it goes into production, will be about delivering speed, style and comfort with zero tailpipe emissions — the headline numbers are 590hp from a pair of electric motors (one at each axle) giving 0 to 100km/h in just 3.5 seconds, with a range of roughly 400km from a single charge.

An 800-volt charging system would be able to refill the battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 minutes. There is also wiring in place under the floor to allow cable-free inductive charging overnight.

Interestingly, the E-Tron GT has been tagged an Audi Sport model, which helps to bolster the idea that driving thrills and battery power can co-exist in the same car.

You might not quite see this in Singapore next year, though. Audi will only start building the E-Tron GT in 2020, with deliveries set to begin in 2021. By then you’ll be seeing the E-Tron label (or “e-tron”, to use Audi’s convention) a lot. Next year the wraps come off an E-Tron Sportback, basically a more slinky version of the E-Tron Quattro. The brand wants 12 electric cars in its line-up by 2025, by which time it is optimistic that as much as 30 percent of its sales will be from electric vehicles.

Confidential: Although it follows on the heels of the E-Tron SUV, it might be better to think of the GT as Audi’s spin on the Porsche Taycan, its corporate sibling’s own battery-powered four-door sportscar. The two are collaborating on a Premium Platform Electric architecture that will spawn a range of electric cars.

BMW M340i, 8 Series Convertible, X7

What’s in a 3 Series? Only the very essence of BMW. “All of our cars contain the sporty and dynamic genes of the 3,” said Klaus Frohlich, the board member in charge of development at BMW, at the brand’s presentation at LA.

The new 3 Series was a major highlight at September’s Paris show — BMW says it is the world’s single best-selling premium vehicle — but BMW is chose LA to showcase the highest-performance version so far, the M340i.

A straight-six, 3.0-litre turbo, which sends 376hp to the rear wheels through an eight-speed auto, giving the BMW the beans to hit 100km/h from standstill in what we reckon should be around 4.5 seconds. 

Is it any good? You’ll have to read our chief editor’s review this issue to be sure.

The engine is mostly carried over from before, so for once what’s interesting about this new M Performance label car might be not what’s under the bonnet, but perhaps the bonnet itself; the M340i’s standout grille design shows that BMW intends to get more aggressive with the styling of its high-performance variants, in a bid to make them more distinct from the mainstream models.

The M340i is now the most powerful 3 Series ever produced (short of an M3). BMW already has prototypes of the next M3 running, and its launch will kick off an aggressive model onslaught from the go-faster division. Industry speculation says there will be 11 new M cars and 15 M Performance cars on sale by 2021.

Three of those will be BMW M8s. Fresh off taking the wraps off the new 8 Series coupe and letting us have a go (see CarBuyer 275), BMW unveiled the Convertible version at LA. The cloth roof works at up to 50km/h and takes 15 seconds to take the car’s headroom to infinity.

For all the hype surrounding electromobility and autonomous drive showcased at LA in the Vision iNext concept car, the 8 Series range is a reminder that BMW remembers its roots, and that fast luxury coupes and convertibles are still relevant to the brand.

The coupe was first launched as a racing car, remember, and the road version is heavy on go-faster tech such as all wheel drive and rear-axle steering. Presumably the Convertible is no slouch, either.

A four-door 8 Series Gran Coupe will be this model line’s next spin-off car, as BMW keeps the product pipeline flowing in an effort to reclaim the number one position in global luxury sales from Mercedes-Benz. The three versions of the 8 Series will be tuned by the M division, said Klaus Frohlich, the board member in charge of development at BMW.

The first 8 Series from 1990 was only ever offered as a coupe, but BMW did develop a convertible version. It was just never launched. But according to Mr Frohlich it was the i8 Roadster that told BMW that customers enjoy open top driving.

The 8 Series Convertible enters production in March, but don’t expect to see it in Singapore until the end of 2019, which puts 2020 as the likely launch date for the 8 Series Gran Coupe.

BMW will also start building the new X7 in March, with the plush new seven-seat flagship sport utility vehicle (SUV) due for launch in Singapore in May 2019.

The X7 is also generating its fair share of buzz at LA, with a constant media stream flowing around the car. In the flesh it doesn’t look that much more bulky than an X5, and its large double-kidney grille (the largest in the BMW range for now) does give it a prominent look that should sit well with buyers who want something grand in the driveway.

The car comes with seven seats as standard, but the more upmarket option is to have six seats. “It’s not a bus,” said Joerg Wunder, the project leader for the car. 

Why pay more for fewer seats? Because the six-seater X7’s 2-2-2 seating layout creates plush seating for the middle row — think of airlines that offer 2-2-2 seating in Business Class versus those that use a 2-3-2 layout.

Product planner Carsten Groeber told CarBuyer that the X7 was created because there was demand for such a car in the market, and until now BMW hasn’t filled that demand. The car gives buyers something to think about other than a Mercedes-Benz GLS or a Range Rover.

The decision to go ahead with the X7 has been a valid one so far, said Mr Groeber. “The order funnel is filling up,” he said.  In the US, the X7’s main market, the car is off to a strong start. Before its LA debut, BMW already collected 1,500 pre-launch orders.

Confidential: Your first glimpse of the new 3 Series will be at January’s Singapore Motor Show. A 330i is being flown in for “preview”. That means it won’t be approved for sale here yet, and no official pricing info will be available.

Kia Soul

Fun-lovin’ California seems like the perfect place for a car like the Kia Soul, with its boxy shape and quirky styling, which might be why the Korean carmaker chose to reveal the new, third-generation model to the world at LA.

It has slimmer lights and more sophisticated styling than the previous model, which you might not remember because it never went on sale in Singapore. Drivetrain options include a 2.0-litre engine and, for the racy GT Line model, the chance to have 201hp of turbo power. There is even an all-electric version with a 64kWh battery pack (range unannounced but likely in the region of 400km) made possible by the car’s new platform. 

Confidential: Sadly, there are no plans to market the new Soul in Singapore. Why not? It might be a question of demographics. The Soul is aimed at young people, who usually lack the funds for a car in Singapore. Parents wealthy enough to render financial assistance are more likely to lean towards the German or Japanese mainstream, which leaves little chance for the Kia.

Mazda 3

Important new cars seldom come as important as this. Mazda unveiled the new 3 at LA, and it embodies the brand’s aim to refine its cars’ designs in order to elevate them above the mainstream. Our editor visited Mazda recently for an in-depth look at this process — read his report this issue.

As for the Mazda 3 itself, both the hatchback and sedan versions of the new car have sleek, organic profiles with slim, neat lamps at both ends. Mazda made the car longer, and its program manager Kota Beppu said engineers had to overcome “technical challenges” to make the bonnet and boot lower.

He said in a statement that Mazda had set out to create “the most gorgeous sedan in its class.”

The car is now 4,662mm long and 1,797mm wide, with a wheelbase of 2,725mm.

The interior retains the driver-focused layout of the current Mazda models, with a step up in quality and an emphasis on making the dashboard look wide and neat, as it does in the latest Mazda 6.

Expect improvements to ride comfort and handling, particularly since the new Mazda 3 is built on the new Skyactiv-Vehicle Architecture, the platform that will underpin the brand’s next generation of cars.

One of the aims with the new platform is to make riding in a car feel as natural as walking on your own feet, said Beppu. “When walking or running, people make subtle adjustments in the legs, pelvis and spine so that head sway can be controlled using only the slightest muscular effort. In order to make this natural action possible in the car, we redesigned and organically linked every component to draw out people’s innate ability to maintain balance,” he said.

The other major breakthrough that the new Mazda 3 will usher in is the Skyactiv-X engine that combines attributes of both petrol and diesel engines (though it still runs on gasoline).

Mazda has said its 2.0-litre Skyactiv X engine can achieve 10 to 30 percent more torque than the current 2.0-litre gasoline Skyactiv G, with efficiency improved by 30 to 40 percent.

Mazda only said the engine line up would “include” a Skyactiv-X engine, so it’s not a given that you’ll be able to buy one with the technology equipped. Mazda said the new engine will be assisted by its M Hybrid system to further boost efficiency. 

For now, the line-up includes Skyactiv-G engines in 1.5, 2.0 and 2.5-litre capacities, of which you can expect the smallest to appear in Singapore, paired with a six-speed auto.

Between a new platform, new engine type and the potential for hybrid drive, the new Mazda 3 has plenty lurking under its shapely skin.

Confidential: Mazda took the unusual step of putting the cars out in full view hours before the press conference to launch them bega. Car companies usually hope to entice as many journalists as possible to their events by keeping their new cars hidden. Mazda was either confident about the new 3’s ability to draw the press, or simply couldn’t wait to show off the car.

Mercedes-AMG GT R Pro

Perhaps not content to let Porsche hog the sportscar limelight with the new 911, Mercedes-AMG brought its own fire-breathing car to LA. The high-performance division division of Mercedes-Benz  launched the GT R Pro there.

It’s an extra hardcore version of Mercedes-AMG’s already hardcore GT R. There isn’t any extra power from the handbuilt, twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 engine (presumably, 577hp is plenty), but the Pro version is roughly six seconds faster around a single lap of the Nürburgring circuit.

That’s courtesy of manually-adjustable suspension, a carbonfibre front anti-roll bar, and some aero aids such as splitters, wings, ducts, to keep it pressed to the road at speed, along with a carbonfibre roof to cut weight. You can tell it apart from lesser Pro models by the highlighter yellow graphics.

Mercedes-AMG has also given the GT range itself a few mid-life updates. There are subtly restyled headlamps (which first appeared on the GT 4-door) and new tailpipes. Inside, the gauges have been replaced by a 12.3-inch digital display, and a touch-sensitive pad replaces the rotary controller for the infotainment system. There’s a new steering wheel with small touch-sensitive pads on the main spokes, too.

The digital tweaks we really like involve changes to the drive mode selector, which now offers Basic, Advanced, Pro, and Master modes. The various modes alter drivetrain, steering, suspension and stability control settings across a spectrum of driver assistance. If you think you drive like a Pro, you’ll be able to show it now.

[Text & Photos]

Leow Ju-len

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