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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The timing could've been a little better. Just as the big-three automakers retreated to Detroit with no bailout money from Washington, a big car party debuts in Los Angeles. It's the L.A. Auto Show, and it opens to the public today.

(Soundbite of open conference floor)

BRAND: I went to see where the future of the automobile industry, American and foreign, is headed during this global economic downturn. But it really is the American car makers who feel out of step here. They're still showing off enormous vehicles, despite the fact that everyone is going green or small, and that's a big reason why Detroit is going under. Wait, here's a little piece of green. It's a chrome H on the side of a black, 6,000-pound Cadillac Escalade, price tag: $80,000. My producer Steve Profit and I get into this hybrid.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

BRAND: I feel powerful, yet eco-conscious.

STEVE PROFFITT: Don't you think this is exactly the kind of car that Tony Soprano would drive if he was still on the air?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And he'd be tawking(ph) about de envi-uh-ment(ph) and stuff like dat(ph).

PROFFITT: So, it's generous size; it seats seven for dinner. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Or you could live in this. It's big enough.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

BRAND: The GM Pavilion at the show is chock full of oversized SUVs, Hummers, even. I almost feel like I'm at the Natural History Museum. We spot a group of attractive young people. They're automobile designers. One of them, Chris Kutz(ph), works for Kia. And he says it's a very strange time for young car makers with big ideas.

Mr. CHRIS KUTZ (Automobile Designer, Kia Motors): You know, we're on the verge of a green revolution, but we're also on the verge of an economic downturn. A lot of projects that we had planned, you know, are maybe going to be put on hold. But I know we have a lot of great small cars that come out, fuel-efficient cars, you know, Kia, Honda. The big three, they don't really offer anything. They kind of brought it on themselves, I feel like.

I interviewed with them a few years ago, and I talked to them about that. You guys only make trucks, you only make SUVs; what about the small cars? And they said, oh, yeah, yeah, maybe, maybe we'll get into that. They say - the management there, they say one thing, but they - what they really want are Camaros, you know? It's like, if you're an American and you want to just commute from A to B, and you want a small, efficient car, a well-built car, you don't really have a whole lot of choices from the American automakers. That's why I'm at Kia.

BRAND: We walked through the show, stopping in the Volkswagen area. VW has just introduced a new series of so-called clean-diesel vehicles. And their clean-diesel Jetta won the title of Green Car of the Year. Nearby, Steve and I spot a very cute, unusual car.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

BRAND: OK, we're in Nissan now, looking at a car called the Cube. And it's white, almost like mother of pearl, and it is, in fact, shaped like a cube; it's a little box.

PROFFITT I think this a very popular car in Japan. This is the first year they're rolling it out in North America. Madeleine, hop in.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

BRAND: It's almost like an animated car, almost, like something you'd seen in anime movie, or in a comic strip. Well, here's the future; I like it.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

BRAND: Getting out, we meet Edward Loh; he's senior editor for Motor Trend Magazine. He tells us the Cube is just the latest so-called box on wheels. Scion was the first to introduce one; Toyota and Kia have them, too.

Mr. EDWARD LOH (Senior Editor, Motor Trend Magazine): And they're all targeting this very hip, youthful segment. They have these fun, funky features, asymmetrical windows, you know, iPod integration. The fact that Nissan's marketing this as a mobile device - well, that's what they call it; instead of a car, it's a mobile device. Like, my photographer Brian is like, looks like an iPod, love it; it's got the Apple kind of curves, you know, especially in white. Right there's this - it's all very carefully orchestrated to make sure that it looks, you know, right for the market.

BRAND: Does it get good gas mileage?

Mr. LOH: It should. It's a little four cylinder engine, front-wheel drive. It's not going to be very fast, but it's really, again, it's kind of for people who care more about style than actual cars or driving enjoyment.

BRAND: So, is the box on wheels the future? Is it a hybrid? Is it an all-electric car? One powered by natural gas, ethanol, diesel? Edward Loh, like most of the people in the auto industry these days, just doesn't know. But it's clear that most of what the American car companies are showing represents anything but the future.

Mr. LOH: The problem is what you see on the show floor are not representations of current thinking. They are cars anywhere from two to five years back, back when gas wasn't $4 a gallon, back before the credit crunch. I mean, when you look at cars like the Camaro, or the Mustang, these retro muscle cars, they were designed, you know, years ago, and now we're starting to see them all over the market, and it's absolutely the wrong time. And so that's why it's really hard to look at anything on the show floor and go, this is where we need to be; this is what's going on; this is going to solve all of our problems. We 're going to have to wait at least, probably, 12 months before we see something that's really designed with current thinking in mind.

BRAND: We wander with Edward down to the basement, where the aftermarket product makers are showing off their stuff. These are custom wheels, crazy, tricked-out Mercedes Smart Cars, and a few prototype electric vehicles. We turn a corner and maybe there's the future, one future, anyway. It's a display of electric-powered bicycles. They're built by a Florida company, Eco-Tech USA. Robert Provost(ph) says these bikes are perfect for short commutes and jumps to the convenience stores.

Mr. ROBERT PROVOST (Eco-Tech USA): It's green; you got a lot of miles in a charge. It costs like 10, 12 cents to charge it. You get up to 50 miles in the 12 cents. You going into work with the bike, you don't get to work all sweaty. And you know, it's nice to be - on the way home, you can exercise. But on the way to work, you can keep cool and dry; you just use it like a scooter.

BRAND: Robert Provost of Eco-Tech. Their electric bikes start at about $1,000. OK, green, cheap, well, can you beat that? At an auto show where so much doesn't make sense, somehow this does.

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