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LA Auto Show suggests traditional car fans may have a problem

While electric vehicles become increasingly mainstream, the fastest petrol cars are now for small target groups.

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BMW's Pieter Nota unveils the Mini John Cooper Works GP at the LA Auto Show, where BMW showed all manner of machines, part of an ongoing product offensive.

Los Angeles

ANYONE who thinks car shows are mostly for petrolheads might be in for a surprise at the LA Auto Show.

Opening its doors to the public today, the event is the auto industry's chance to show off its latest and greatest to an American audience, but this year quiet battery power is taking centre stage, instead of cars with roaring V8 engines.

Global launches here include the Audi e-tron Sportback, a shapely crossover that is the brand's second battery electric vehicle (BEV), and the I D Space Vizzion, an electric stationwagon concept from Volkswagen, which recently announced that it is spending 60 billion euros (S$90.6 billion) to develop electric and autonomous cars.

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Porsche is unveiling the Taycan 4S, a cheaper, less powerful version of its first BEV, while Toyota is showing the public a plug-in hybrid version of its RAV4, which was the world's single bestselling sport utility vehicle last year.

BMW Group's Mini Electric, a battery-powered version of the iconic hatchback, is making its American debut here.

Together, these launches are a reminder that electric cars now come in all shapes and sizes. But while BEVs grab plenty of attention, there's life in the combustion engine yet. Alongside its new electric hatchback, Mini is also launching the John Cooper Works GP, the fastest car in its history.

While the new Mini GP has 306 horsepower and can lap the famed Nurburgring circuit in less than eight minutes - a time that rivals that of bona fide sports cars - another petite powerhouse from BMW, the M2 CS, is making its global debut with 450 horsepower. It even comes with a manual gearbox, just for old-school driving enthusiasts.

The side-by-side introduction of high performance petrol cars and electric vehicles suggests that car manufacturers must now diversify their product lines, or risk losing customers as market tastes evolve.

BMW doesn't see this as a problem. "I would say it's rather an opportunity, because we really offer exactly what the customers around the world want," Pieter Nota, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Customer, Brands and Sales, said on Wednesday.

BMW brought all manner of machines to the LA show, as part of an ongoing product offensive. The M8 Competition Gran Coupe, a 625 horsepower monster that rivals some Ferraris in its acceleration, is debuting alongside the 2 Series Gran Coupe, a stylish, compact four-door car. For good measure, BMW is also showing the LA public a 1.8-litre motorcycle with a thumping engine, the Concept R18.

"We review our (product) portfolios very regularly. For me it's important to offer what the customer wants, so we cater to customer demand," Mr Nota told the Business Times.

That approach applies to its powertrains, as well. "BMW is working on the assumption that different systems will coexist alongside one another, because there will be no one solution which will fit all customer needs," said Jan Freimann, BMW's manager for connected e-mobility. He expects that half of BMW's sales will still come from full combustion engined-cars in 2030.

So far the approach is working. The first 10 months of 2019 have been BMW's best ever in terms of sales.

But even if broadening its menu has enabled BMW to keep growing in a declining car market, reactions to its new cars at LA offer a glimpse at where customer tastes are headed. The Mini John Cooper Works GP is limited to just 3,000 units, ostensibly to keep it exclusive, and in contrast more than 80,000 people have registered their interest in the Mini Electric. "We have already sold several thousand," Mr Nota said. "We've had demand (for the Mini Electric) for quite some time. It's a car that people have been waiting for."

In contrast, he said the GP is for "a more specific and limited target group".

With electric cars becoming increasingly mainstream, petrolheads might discover at the LA Auto Show that they are steadily turning into a limited target group.