My green ride and drive at LA Auto Show similar to being a little boy going to Disneyland

Last week Thursday at the LA Auto Show, I participated in the Green and Advanced Technology Ride & Drive. At a holiday part on Saturday night, a friend asked me what it was like and I said it reminded me of being a little boy going to Disneyland. It had its thrilling moments.

The best one was driving a Volkswagen Passat TDI with algae-derived fuel powering the diesel engine. I learned a lot about the clean fuel powering it from Dan Phillips, director of fuels for Solazyme. I had many questions for him about Solazyme’s test program at four retail gas stations in the Bay Area with Propel Fuels. Propel Fuels is reaching out to customers by email to gain feedback on the consumer fueling experience. Solazyme has contracts with the US Navy, corporate clients, and is working with Volkswagen at its electronics research lab near San Francisco where emissions testing is being conducted. Solazyme produces algae oil from its concentrated growth facilities, and can produce fuels requested by clients, which could be the biodiesel additive version appropriate for B20 and the renewable version that can completely replace diesel fuel for engines. No gasoline version is available yet, but if there were a client willing to pay for the testing and production, I would think Solazyme would turn its algae oil into something comparable to E85. Algae oil is very similar to fossil fuel oil – you can use it for hundreds of applications, though it is much cleaner.

I was disappointed that Ford Motor Co. opted out of the ride and drive (no Tesla cars were available for driving either, by the way). I was hoping to test out the Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid hatchback. So I walked over to the massive Ford display at the Convention Center hall and found a C-Max Energi parked there. I sat in the driver’s seat and checked out the display panel, driver comfort and control devices, and visibility. Then I went to the back seat and hatchback and folded seats down to estimate whether my long surfboard could be carried to the beach (the hatchback door may close, or it may need to be strapped down with a bungee cord).  Previously, while driving a Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, a Toyota representative told me that the C-Max Energi is being compared not so much to the Prius Plug-in, but more to the slightly larger Prius V hybrid, due to its similar interior space. The C-Max Hybrid is closer in price to the Prius V and is more directly competitive, but the C-Max Energi will play a role in that competitive race, too.

It was interesting to drive a Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid. American Honda Motor Co. held a media event on Thursday morning, with big news on its top-selling Honda Accord sedan. For 2014, one of the versions will be the Accord Plug-In Hybrid, which is estimated to get 115 miles per gallon equivalent with an estimated 49 city, 45 highway, and 47 combined fuel economy and a sticker price for $39,780. Honda said it will have the highest fuel economy of any plug-in vehicle. The Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid is set to go on sale on Jan. 15, 2013, starting in California and New York.

I drove a Fisker Karma for the first time, which does have an impressive interior design. I didn’t have the heart to ask the co-pilot about the latest crises the company is going through, and I don’t think he would have known much about it.

The Smart ForTwo electric car was another first for me. At six foot three, I did fit pretty nicely into the micro car. There’s no room in the backseat, similar to the Mini-E, but it’s actually quite functional for basic commuting and cost efficiency. The Smart electric car goes on sale in the spring of next year with a base price of $25,750, including shipping.

The exhibit halls are massive and worth visiting, along with media debuts. But the ride and drive is the best part. The trips were pretty short. You can bug them until they let you lengthen the route, but you do get a feel for how the car operates no matter how brief the trip. The staff generally can answer your questions about the car and what’s coming next, though some of that does happen “off camera.” I did get to drive the Honda Accord plug-in hybrid all by myself, and resisted the desire to jump on the Harbor Freeway to see what it could really do.

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