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L.A. Auto Show: Toyota Sienna, Prius Plug-in, Chevy Cruze

December 2, 2009 |  1:39 pm

Toyota Sienna worldwide debut

Toyota's third-generation Sienna minivan makes its world debut here and is the most heavily tracked of the Japanese carmakers' offerings this year. Here, it builds on a F3R concept unveiled at the 2006 L.A. Auto Show.

Boasting a re-sculpted, more muscular front end, a reworked back end with LED taillights, and a luxury interior, Toyota aims to attract young families and empty-nest boomers to its latest minivan. Most upgrades are in the interior: Toyota's Bob Carter introduced the new model as a “living-room” type concept. Upscale touches on the limited edition include a moon roof and extendable leather seats. It's plush in there, believe me. I wish my living room looked like that.

Three models -- standard equipment, mid and special edition -- utilize two powertrains, a 3.5-liter V-6 and a 2.7-liter four-cylinder (from the Highlander) that gets about 26 miles per gallon highway. The Sienna sits on Toyota's MC platform that underpins the Camry, Highlander and RAV4, among others in the range, in a move that's projected to save the carmaker some cash. I drove a current Sienna about a year ago and it felt like driving a Camry. I have high hopes for this one.

Toyota switched production to Siennas from Tundras at its Princeton, Ind., plant; since 2003 Siennas have been built in Kentucky.

Asked why Toyota is releasing a new product in the minivan market, which has shrunk by half in the last 10 years, Toyota spokesman Sam Butto told The Times, “We believe there's still a market for minivans, and it was time for the next-generation Sienna. There's still people out there that are interested in a minivan. There are a lot of utilitarian features for the guy who has a family but his heart is still into cars and having fun, having fun driving.

“We expect to sell about 75,000 sales for the 2009 current Sienna. The only thing to say at this point in time is that it will surpass the current model's sales.”

Worth noting: Honda and Nissan also are planning 2011 releases for their Odyssey and Quest minivans.

Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid North American debut

Toyota also showcased its Prius Plug-in Hybrid concept. Perhaps more reality than concept, the Prius Plug-in Hybrid that made its worldwide debut at Frankfurt this year packs lithium batteries that are lighter and more powerful than the current generation's nickel-metal hydrides.

Expect it to charge fully within 1.5 hours from a standard outlet -- all that is required is a special heavy-duty cable -- and drive for about 12 miles at speeds up to 62 mph before the four-cylinder 1.8-liter engine kicks into life. Carbon dioxide emissions, Toyota hopes, could be less than 60 grams per kilometer. Mileage is expected to jump by about half, from the current model's 50 mpg to about 75 mpg.

It'll compete against Nissan's Leaf and the Chevy Volt on its projected 2012 release in the first wave of plug-in hybrids. Fierce brand loyalty will be tested by recent sudden-acceleration issue, which may just give Honda a glimmer of hope in a market dominated by its closest rival. Toyota will test the new Prius' suitability to market conditions in the U.S., Europe and Asia under a global leasing initiative that's likely to include California.

Chevrolet Cruze North American debut

After showcasing the Chevrolet Volt and GM's long-term environmental strategy -- “an unprecedented focus on green technology and the electrification of the automobile” -- GM spokesman Brent Dewar moved swiftly to the unveiling of its Cruze, a subcompact Eurocar now available in 60 markets globally. U.S. production is slated to begin in mid-2010 at GM's plant in Lordstown, Ohio.

Sharing the same platform with the Volt, the Cruze is expected to achieve 40 mpg, or about 20% more than the current Cobalt model it will supersede. The 2.0-liter engine will be standard alongside upscale variants LT and LTX, which probably will share a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine that generates 145 horsepower and strong low-down torque. Both will be mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox.

The Cruze is longer than the Cobalt by about an inch, offers greater legroom and has a higher beltline and a slightly dropped grille that first was featured on its sister Malibu.

It comes with 10 airbags and five-star safety ratings and 4 million test miles under its belt. Look for interior upgrades including iPhone compatibility and Bluetooth alongside a wedge-shaped central console favored across GM's range (pioneered in its Corvette and one of the Malibu's strongest features).

Also worth noting is Ford's North American debut of its Fiesta Euromodel this afternoon, part of domestic and international carmakers' cost-cutting efforts to introduce single models across global markets. Brent Dewar, head of Chevrolet, formerly led the brand's European sales operations.

-- Craig Howie