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Fuel Efficiency, Gadgets Mark Los Angeles Auto Show

Auto makers who are showcasing their latest models at the Los Angeles auto show are expanding product lines in the hope of staying competitive in a changing market. Mike O'Sullivan reports, carmakers from Ford to Honda are offering fuel-efficiency with high tech extras.

Executives from Ford say the key to growth is offering a greater range of products. Ford plans to build big sports utility vehicles and trucks for those who want them, and smaller vehicles that can compete with industry leaders, General Motors and Toyota.

Ford has been losing money, but chief executive Alan Mulally, speaking with reporters in Los Angeles, said the company is restructuring and developing new models, and plans to be profitable by 2009.

Downstairs on the display floor, Mark Laschinski demonstrates a selling point in a dozen Ford models, a high-tech system called Sync, which interacts with some mobile phones, music and video players.

"Sync is a voice activation media and communication entertainment device available to Ford from Microsoft which allows you to voice activate your iPod, your media devices, your Zune," he said. "If you have a flash drive, you can stick it in through a USB port."

The device will receive and read aloud text messages from your friends, including your closest friends.

"I love you," it said.

Other high tech devices now common in vehicles include GPS or global positioning navigation systems, and a range of safety features, such as electronic stability controls that reduce the risk of rolling over on the highway.

The biggest changes in recent years have been under the hood of the car. With oil prices approaching $100 a barrel, the hottest models at the auto show are those with fuel-efficient engines, including gasoline-electric hybrids. And, for the first time, Honda is putting on the market a hydrogen fuel cell car. Called the Honda FCX Clarity, the car will be offered for lease to specially selected customers by the middle of next year.

Christina Ra of Honda says it is the first model completely designed around fuel cell technology, which runs on hydrogen and produces no emissions except water vapor.

She says there will be hurdles for the customers who lease them because there are just a few refueling stations around major cities like Los Angeles.

"The first few customers will be those that we have spoken to and do understand that there still are some challenges with these vehicles, refueling certainly being one of them, understanding their range, having somewhat predictable driving patterns, and also alternatively another vehicle that they can drive for those longer trips where they can't find that infrastructure," she said.

Small gasoline-powered vehicles are also becoming more fuel efficient, and some carmakers are gambling that consumers will want them. A company called Smart will sell tiny two-seat autos, which are already in use in Europe, on the U.S market. Ken Kettenbeil of Smart says people will notice this car.

"You're standing here with me and I think you'll agree when I say the car is small," he said. "The car is a little under nine feet long [under three meters], so if you think about that, it's probably about the size of your couch that you might have in your living room."

One-and-a-half meters high and wide, the Smart car when seen from the front is about as big as an oversized TV set.

Americans may be skeptical about a European-style mini-car, but Kettenbeil says consumers are seeking alternatives to their oversized gas-guzzlers.

"People that live in large urban areas like Los Angeles have expressed a lot of interest in the vehicle for parking and traffic and urban congestion, as well as empty nesters, people that really don't need that big back seat any more," he said.

Some offerings at the LA auto show are for those who want speed and style more than a practical vehicle with good fuel economy.

Among the more exotic offerings is a Lamborghini equipped with a new 12-cylinder, 650 horsepower engine and selling for $1.4 million. And Ford is spicing up its model line with a limited-edition Mustang called the Bullitt, inspired by the car driven by the actor Steve McQueen in the 1968 movie of the same name.