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Los Angeles Auto Show's green emphasis is no coincidence in climate-minded California

Bloomberg

Batteries and big price tags are all the rage at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show.

While it’ll be tough for any carmaker to top the buzz Ford Motor Co. has already generated with the debut of its Mustang Mach-E sport utility vehicle, several other new electric models will be looking to share the limelight.

Volkswagen AG’s Audi plans to unveil its e-tron Sportback, a coupe version of its battery-powered crossover, and the German giant’s namesake brand is set to take the wraps off a zero-emission concept car. BMW AG and Toyota Motor Corp. are rolling out plug-in hybrid versions of their RAV4 and X3 models, and Hyundai Motor Co. will foreshadow what a future gas-electric compact SUV of its own will look like.

The emphasis on going green is no coincidence: California leads the charge when it comes to setting stricter vehicle-emissions rules in the U.S.

On the eve of the show, the state said it would boycott carmakers who recently sided with the Trump administration in its legal battle to curb California’s power to set its own tougher standards on tailpipe pollution. The state’s clean-air regulator also is sitting out the show in protest.

The RAV4 Prime, a new plug-in hybrid version of Toyota’s top-selling SUV, arrives at an opportune time for an automaker that’s taken as much flak as any for aligning with the White House in the fight over fuel economy.

Toyota, which moved its U.S. headquarters out of the state in 2017, last month joined a coalition of companies calling for one federal standard for fuel economy — though it tried to thread the needle by saying it wasn’t taking political sides and that it favors rules steadily improving. California Gov. Gavin Newsom wasn’t having it, and accused the company of favoring President Donald Trump and the oil industry over clean air. Tesla Inc.’s Elon Musk called it “sad” that the maker of the pioneering Prius hybrid was positioned against the state.

For the environmentally minded who aren’t ready to write off the brand, the RAV4 Prime offers an estimated 39 miles of battery range, which Toyota claims will top all other plug-in hybrid SUVs. It’ll be in showrooms next summer.

Ford’s Lincoln luxury line is fielding another plug-in hybrid version of one of its new SUVs, the Corsair. With 25 miles of battery range extended by a four-cylinder gasoline engine, the Corsair Grand Touring isn’t exactly a Tesla fighter.

But Lincoln will still try to get customers to pay up for that electric oomph by charging about $50,000 (¥5.4 million). That’s roughly $14,000 above the conventional Corsair, which debuted at the New York auto show earlier this year.

“For the consumers who are downsizing, it’s not always about money; they just don’t need a big vehicle anymore,” Joy Falotico, the head of Lincoln, told reporters during a briefing. “They’re not as price-sensitive, and so this is a nice option because it has that environmental solution.”

Lincoln, which introduced a plug-in hybrid version of its larger Aviator SUV this fall starting at $68,800, is just following the money. Vehicles with a suggested retail price of at least $50,000 are now a quarter of the U.S. market, according to researcher Cox Automotive, more than quadrupling their share since 2012.

Not everybody’s going up-market, though. Nissan Motor Co.’s new Sentra represents the latest effort to freshen its lineup, with the first full redesign of the compact sedan in seven years. Updates include a number of features that bring the 2020 model into the next decade, including a standard 7-inch color touchscreen or an 8-inch display with Apple Inc.’s CarPlay and Google LLC’s Android Auto connectivity.

As part of efforts to streamline its lineup and cope with lower demand for sedans, Nissan will offer the eighth-generation Sentra in just three trims — half the number of the current model. But all grades get a standard package of advanced-safety systems, including automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection and lane-departure warning. The car also has a new 2.0-liter engine that should improve fuel economy over the 2019 version.

Nissan could use a boost from the Sentra, a car it’s long depended on to attract first-time buyers to the brand. Sales of its third-best selling vehicle — after the Rogue SUV and Altima midsize sedan — are down 11 percent so far this year.

Does the world need another convertible? Toyota thinks so. Its upscale brand will now offer a soft-top version of its LC 500 flagship coupe.

The car comes with a suspension specially tuned to compensate for the aerodynamic challenges of going topless, and its folding roof takes just 15 seconds to open or close at up to 31 miles per hour.

To keep drivers warm with the top down, the seats have built-in neck warmers. Sales of the hard-top LC, which starts at $92,950, are tiny, totaling just 1,688 for all of last year. Demand for the sunny-weather version probably will be even lower, but the convertible gives the brand some bragging rights for offering a full range of options.