Diana DeGarmo and the 2005 Ford Mustang ConvertibleClick to enlarge picture

Diana DeGarmo of American Idol fame introduces the all-new 2005 Ford Mustang Convertible, an American icon, at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.

VolkswagenJettaThe Tonight Show

Giant automaker General Motors Corp. gathered well-known NASCAR racers, including Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., to launch new Chevrolet cars, while American Idol runner-up Diana DeGarmo belted out "Rockin' Down the Highway" as Ford took the wraps off its newest Mustang, the 2005 Mustang convertible.

If this is Los Angeles, there must be stars, and if it's January, it must be time for the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show. The annual car fest, with 13 debuts this year of new models never seen publicly before in the world and another dozen revealed for the first time in North America, brings together celebrities and cars like virtually no other auto show in the country.

Head-turning sights range from the sleek Ferrari Superamerica convertible—red, of course—to award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman strolling in low-key fashion amid the car displays.

Convertibles Coming On

No fewer than five new convertibles debuted in L.A., with Ford providing the glitziest premiere.

The automaker brought DeGarmo, runner-up in last season's American Idol television show, to serenade the crowd as a bright-red, 2005 Mustang convertible rolled onstage. The youngest American Idol contestant to reach the final rounds, 17-year-old DeGarmo had bought a 2005 Mustang coupe in December 2004 but said she might want a convertible now.

Why not? The drop-top Mustang, in showrooms this spring, features a fully lined fabric top that's power operated, save for the two latches at the top of the windshield that must be opened and closed manually. This is the first Mustang convertible with a top that folds in "Z" fashion, allowing the fabric to rest low enough behind the rear seats that it doesn't interfere with rearward views, even if the driver doesn't put on the manual boot.

With a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price of $23,870, the Mustang V6 convertible is the most affordable open-air car with V6 in the market, Ford officials said. A V8 GT version starting at $29,370 qualifies as the lowest-priced V8 convertible, they said.

The convertibles are priced more than $4,500 higher than the comparable Mustang coupes. Both coupes and convertibles ride on the same platform and use the same engines and transmissions.

The redesigned and re-engineered Mustang coupe, which went on sale in fall 2004, has been a big seller. "We already can't build enough coupes," said Greg Smith, Ford executive vice president for the Americas. But he assured the audience that the convertible production should add "another 30 percent" to the overall Mustang tally.

Another crowd pleaser was Ferrari's 12-cylinder Superamerica convertible. The limited-edition 540-horsepower two-seater, based on the 575M Maranello, has a top that rotates as it moves rearward. The roof glass also is electrochromatic, so a driver can push a button and adjust the tint of the overhead glass from dark to light.

Bentley revealed an open-top car, too. The four-passenger Arnage Drophead Coupe show car is based on the Arnage production car platform and has the Arnage front end, as well as a 450-horsepower 6.75-liter twin-turbocharged V8. But the rear and interior of the Drophead Coupe are new. Company officials said the Drophead Coupe could make it to showrooms by spring 2006 with a price tag of some $300,000, if consumers show enough interest.

Porsche noted that Los Angeles is a top market for its cars as it introduced the 2005 Boxster. Only the second generation of Porsche's entry roadster, the new model is more aggressively styled, has a wider track, updated front and rear suspensions and a higher quality interior. Both boxer six-cylinder engines are more powerful than before. The 2.7-liter base engine has 240 horsepower and 199 lb-ft of torque, while the 3.2-liter powerplant generates 280 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. Starting MSRP is $43,800, and the 2005 Boxster is expected in showrooms by mid-January.

Pontiac also brought convertibles to L.A. The 2006 G6 Convertible features a power-operated, Karmann-designed retractable hardtop. It's fitted on a two-door, four-passenger version of the Pontiac G6, which debuted in fall 2004 as a sedan.

Oprah fans might recall that Pontiac gave away G6 sedans to members of the audience during one of her television shows in 2004. There were no giveaways or Oprah sightings at the L.A. show, but Pontiac said G6 Convertibles will be in showrooms for purchase early in calendar 2006.

Bob Lutz, vice chairman of Pontiac's parent company, General Motors Corp., brought out a production version of the upcoming Pontiac Solstice roadster and announced, "You literally would have to go back to The Rockford Files TV show of the '70s to find Pontiacs that looks this good." The Solstice will arrive at dealerships in summer 2005, and officials said pricing for the convertibles would come closer to their on-sale dates in showrooms.

Cars, Not Trucks

Trucks took a back seat at the L.A. show as no fewer than ten cars were unveiled.

Chevrolet, which provides Monte Carlo coupes for NASCAR racers, had a group of NASCAR stars at its press conference. Four-time NASCAR champion Gordon posed with the 2005 Monte Carlo, which features revised styling, new wheels and tires, updated safety, improved suspension, new V6 engines and the return of the small-block V8 to a Monte Carlo SS model.

Chevy also showed the sedan sibling of the Monte Carlo, the 2006 Impala, which gets the same updates, including a base 3.5-liter V6 with 210 horses, up from the current base engine's 180. Both the Impala and Monte Carlo will be at dealerships by fall 2005, when pricing will be announced.

Gordon was joined by fellow racers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Brian Vickers, but they were not the last of the celebrities seen around the show activities.

In a first, Volkswagen chose L.A. for a world premiere, and in another first, hosted a celebrity party in Hollywood. The occasion: the worldwide launch of the fifth-generation Jetta, which is larger, dramatically restyled and has more powerful engines than before.

"Everything in this car is new," spokesman Steve Keyes said, adding the new model is especially designed for American car buyers. A new 150-horsepower 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine puts out 175 lb-ft of torque, and a 6-speed automatic is offered on the Jetta for the first time. A 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4 cylinder also is offered, and VW retains the same diesel 4 cylinder that's in the predecessor Jetta. For the time being, the diesel car won't be available in five states—California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. But VW's corporate chairman said the automaker will meet the 2007 emission standards for diesels, suggesting that the diesel Jetta might be a 50-state model in a couple years.

These details seemed lost on the Hollywood crowd at VW's late-night party off Santa Monica Boulevard. Among the partygoers were Stallone and actors Adrian Grenier, Carmen Electra, Aisha Tyler and Jessica Biel. VW kept the atmosphere hip by hiding Jettas under white outer-space-like domes until the grand reveal that came after Alicia Keys sang.

The atmosphere was sedate a few miles away as GM hosted a reception of women movers and shakers of Hollywood. The evening announcement, witnessed by actress and writer Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame, was an alliance between the automaker and the Women in Film nonprofit organization worth a reported $1 million.

VW's Audi division didn't have a party, but it showed off its 2006 A3, a compact 5-door car due in showrooms in May with a starting price of around $25,000. First models will be front-drive with a 200-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine, but a V6-powered A3 with quattro all-wheel drive is planned for later in calendar 2005.

Comedian Jim Belushi entertained at Volvo's press conference, where the automaker known for safe, practical vehicles showed off some wild customized versions of some of its models. There was even a bright-yellow XC90 with a 600-horsepower supercharged V8. It's not offered for sale, though.

Dodge highlighted its performance SRT models by introducing two new ones: a 425-horsepower 2006 Magnum SRT8 with 6.1-liter HEMI V8, and a 500-horsepower 2006 Dodge Viper SRT10 coupe with an 8.3-liter V10.

Similarly, Mercedes-Benz took the wraps off a performance version of its new CLS sedan. The CLS55 AMG boasts 469 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque from a hand-built, supercharged 5.5-liter V8. All CLS models go on sale early in calendar 2005.

What SUVs?

Pontiac had probably the only debut of a sport-utility vehicle in L.A. The midsize 2006 Pontiac Torrent is based on the Chevy Equinox platform but promises a more sporting driving and handling experience. The Torrent has the Equinox's 210-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 and goes on sale in the second half of calendar 2005.

Chevy took the wraps off its HHR, a compact, tall wagon that's often contrasted with Chrysler's PT Cruiser. Powered by 4-cylinder engines and riding on the platform of the Chevy Cobalt small car, the HHR has flared fenders, a retro look and a flexible cargo- and people-hauling interior. The HHR arrives in showrooms in the second half of calendar 2005 and can be easily customized to fit a buyer's personality, as evidenced by the HHR from West Coast Customs that was at the L.A. show. HHR pricing has not been announced.

Celebrity Sightings

Almost as busy as the auto show floor was Leno's garage. A well-known car buff, the comedian's extensive collection includes a steam car, Duesenbergs, Bentleys and a Ford GT. The evening before the auto show opened, Leno shared his prized autos with Ford officials, invited media and some racing giants—including Carroll Shelby, Dan Gurney and Phil Hill. The next day, Leno was reportedly back at his garage, this time with race driver Gordon. No word on which car Gordon liked best, but he later appeared on Leno's The Tonight Show as a guest.

Then there was actor Hoffman, quietly taking in some press conferences along with the news media. Could it be the actor who's famous for really digging into the characters he plays was researching an upcoming movie role? Stay tuned.

Ann Job is a writer for T&A Ink media group.

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