2010 L.A. Auto Show: Top

Judging from this year's offerings, the auto industry is clearly weaning itself off of petroleum in anticipation of stricter regulation. Paul Eisenstein picks 2011's most "electric" cars.

Reed Saxon / AP photo

Reed Saxon / AP photo

Chevrolet Volt

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt not only was named Green Car of the Year during the L.A. Auto Show media preview, but was honored as the Motor Trend Car of the Year and Automobile magazine’s Automobile of the year. What’s getting people so excited is the four-seater’s alternative take to hybrid power. Volt’s lithium-ion batteries deliver 25 to 50 miles of range, but when the pack is discharged, the car’s downsized gasoline engine fires up, letting you drive indefinitely.

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Toyota RAV4-EV

Longtime show-goers might get a sense of déjà vu at the Toyota stand, where the maker is introducing the RAV4-EV. It launched a similarly named, battery-powered crossover at the Staples Center 14 years ago. That older model failed to generate much mainstream enthusiasm because of the limits of prior battery technology, but Toyota—partnering with battery car startup Tesla Motors—says new lithium-ion batteries will overcome such concerns by adding more range and performance. Production is set for 2012.

Courtesy of the LA Auto Show

Nissan Ellure

For the moment, think of the strikingly handsome Nissan Ellure as nothing more than a fantasy in chrome. But unlike concept cars of the past, it may have a real future, hints the maker’s global head of design, Shiro Nakamura. Blending design elements from Japanese tradition with some retro touches—notably the ‘50s-style “suicide doors”—the overall look of Ellure is distinctly modern. And according to Nakamura, key styling cues will reappear on the next-generation Nissan sedan family.

Damian Dovarganes / AP Photo

Honda Fit EV

Like its archrival Toyota, Honda has put an emphasis on hybrid technology over the past decade. But CEO Takanobu Ito emphasized that their “ultimate goal is to power personal mobility with electricity.” The Fit EV, a battery-powered version of the smallest Honda now sold in the U.S., reveals what that means. Getting 100 miles per charge, the hatchback will debut in 2012 and likely be followed by other Honda battery-electric vehicles.

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Fiat 500

Absent from the U.S. market for the past two decades, Fiat will make its return later this year with the assistance of its American partner, Chrysler—and the debut of the charming 500 microcar. Already a hit in Europe, the Fiat 500 proves good cars can come in small packages, thanks to a design that provides a surprisingly roomy and upscale interior. The advanced, gas-powered MultiAir engine is not only fuel-efficient but surprisingly peppy. A battery version is under development.

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Ford Focus

A familiar name but the 2011 Focus is all-new—and where domestic compacts have traditionally been little more than stripped-down econoboxes, Ford takes the new Focus in a decidedly more stylish direction. It’s roomier, peppier, and more lavishly equipped, with an array of standard features—such as the Sync infotainment system—not found on more up-market offerings. The base engine is sporty, and the high-mileage EcoBoost powertrain also makes 247 horsepower. A battery version debuts in 2012.

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Buick LaCrosse With eAssist

A brand seemingly rising from the dead, Buick has scored big with models like the full-size LaCrosse sedan. Now, it’s out to prove that big cars don’t have to be gas-guzzlers. The lithium-ion-based eAssist hybrid powertrain shuts its engine off when idling, but allows onboard accessories, like air conditioning, to keep running. The technology is efficient enough to squeeze out 37 miles per gallon, as much as many subcompact offerings. Look for the LaCrosse with eAssist to debut shortly.

Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Hyundai Elantra

Few makers have more transformed their image in recent years than Hyundai. Long known for cheap econoboxes—and reliability issues—the Korean car maker has surged to the top of the quality charts. The midsize Sonata is one of the style trendsetters in its segment, and is now followed by the smaller Elantra, which takes on such compact mainstays as the Toyota Corolla with a blend of high style, a long list of accessories—and 40 mpg highway fuel economy.

Courtesy of the LA Auto Show

Saab 9-4X

For a while, it looked like the Swedish automaker might not make it to L.A., but a white knight rolled in to save Saab after former owner General Motors began shutting the brand down this year. Its new flagship, the redesigned 9-5 sedan, gets some company on the showroom floor with the all-new 9-4X crossover vehicle. The five-seater is roomy, offers go-anywhere all-wheel-drive, and maintains some of Saab’s traditionally charming eccentricities, like the Start button on the center console.

Courtesy of the LA Auto Show

Wheego LiFE

Atlanta-based Wheego symbolizes the David-and-Goliath battle under way in the automotive market. The rise of electric propulsion is permitting an array of wannabe automakers to challenge the industry’s established order, though it’s unclear which—if any—of the startups will survive. The visually distinctive LiFE is what Wheego bills as an “affordable” electric car, priced at $25,445 after a $7,500 federal tax credit. Range is about 100 miles, with a top speed of 65 mph.