Electric Vehicles: 2009 and Beyond, Part II

What Can You Buy Now, Future Technologies and How They All Work

Tesla Roadster

Chrysler EVs

By Alison Lakin

What You Can Buy Now
With regards to fully crash-tested, highway safe electric vehicles here in the U.S., pickings are noticeably slim (read: there’s only one). Right now, city cars or neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) are still more prevalent. These are not highway safe and remain speed limited because of a lack of safety testing and pesky little safety features like airbags. It is not that they don’t care if little Jimmy in the backseat is involved in an accident, the small companies don’t have the capital for the testing and implementation of all the features. To cover the expensive overheads of new technology, the city cars aren’t a cheap proposition and are frequently bought as company vehicles for within business parks and resorts.

The ZENN car is a perfect example. This two-seater is limited at 25 mph and has a range of about 35 miles. If you are staying within city limits and just running errands, this is a great zero-emissions option. It is expensive at a starting price of $15,995, and luxuries like air conditioning will bump the cost up considerably.

GEM, owned by Chrysler, is another city car company. They lean heavily toward work trucks and bear a strong resemblance to golf carts. With a 30-mile maximum per charge and a limited speed of 25 mph, these vehicles are only allowed on roads with a posted speed limit of 35 and below.

Rick Kasper, its President and COO, is positive about the future of these city cars and has witnessed the EV market’s growth. “Since GEM cars first hit the roads in 1998, the market has transformed," says Kasper. “With high gas prices and the movement to be more eco-friendly, both the fleet and retail automotive markets have become much more attracted to alternative fuel, economical transportation options including GEM cars, especially in 2008."

Another EV maker, Zap, produces a three-wheeler EV for those looking to make a distinctive statement. Their Xebra Sedan is drivable for just 25 miles before a recharge is needed. The car may look goofy, but it does actually fit four passengers at a price of only $11,700. Like GEM, their utility vehicles seem to garner the most attention from corporate buyers – still the biggest purchasers of this technology.

Ok, but what if I’d like to hit the highway in my car?

The only road legal, fully electric car available as of print is the Tesla Roadster, which has just started hitting the streets. Only 30-something are driving around on our roads. 

Martin Eberhard, founder and former CEO of Tesla, is a believer in the top-down approach to new technology. “If we make electric cars cool to own," he says, “if they become desirable, the public will be more readily accepting of those products."

And no one can deny the Tesla is one desirable vehicle. The two-seat, rear-wheel drive drop-top can do 0-60 mph in under four seconds – in complete silence. The 375-volt motor maxes out at 248 horsepower and doesn’t hit redline until 14,000 rpm. Whew. Its range is roughly 220 miles before needing an eight-hour charge. But if you splurge for the high power charging system the Roadster will be good to go after three and a half hours.

What’s the catch? At a starting price of $109,000 and a long wait list, the masses won’t be getting a bite of this EV anytime soon.

Future Electric Vehicles
The big manufacturers are getting back in the game. They seem to be a little rusty though. With them comes more money for safety testing and mass production, but also a lot of indecision. Production plans and timelines change at the drop of a hat, leaving us with mostly wonder and speculation.
Here is what is heading our way.

The official word is that the battery-powered Chevrolet Volt will hit dealerships in November 2010. The Volt is something a little different than your typical EV; the people out of Detroit are calling it an extended-range electric vehicle. The four-door sedan will be able to go 40 miles on only lithium-ion battery power, but then will switch to its backup gas engine if the driver needs to extend the ride. The Volt can fully charge via a normal household plug, but the batteries can also store energy while the gas engine is doing its thing.

Eberhard sees the undeniable benefits to this setup: “50 percent of us drive fewer than 40 miles a day – the Volt is perfect for that. The sense of security for the consumer is more important than the reality. People don’t want to think they are limited and the backup engine gives them freedom."

In September, Chrysler debuted three EV prototypes with the intention to consecutively roll them out starting in late 2010. All will have unique purposes; Dodge’s will be a sports car, Chrysler’s a Town and Country Minivan and Jeep’s will take the form of the rough and tumble Wrangler.

While the Dodge sports car will be a full electric vehicle, the Town and Country and Wrangler will be powered by a similar system to the extended-range Volt. They will use a small gasoline engine to accommodate for any driving over the first 40 miles of electric-only road time. The vehicles should have a total driving range of 400 miles with eight gallons of gas.

Dodge’s yet unnamed sports car will have a range of 150-200 miles, a top speed of 120 mph and a 0-60 time of less than five seconds. The 200 kW electric motor will produce 268 horsepower and 480 lb-ft of torque. Talk about giving the Tesla a run for its money.

Th!nk cars, built by a small Norwegian company, may not be the sexiest autos to grace our website’s pages, but they do have a realistic product. A little back story: Think was bought by Ford to meet the Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate in the 1990s. They pumped money into the program, but dumped it in 2003. It took a few turnovers more before the current owners got their hands on it.

Ford’s involvement with the vehicle means it has a leg-up on the products developed solely by small companies. They have had crash testing and formed strong alliances with vendors. Five seats, a top speed of 83 mph and a 200-mile range sound pretty good as well. Unfortunately, the estimated price ($28,000) screams small company, large overhead to us. We also do not know exactly when in the next few years it will make it to the U.S.

Actively testing in various parts of the world are electric versions cars that we’re already familiar with: the MINI Cooper, Toyota Prius and Smart ForTwo. Whether these will appear in the U.S. in the next few years is still up in the air.

A number of EV concepts have cropped up at auto shows recently, but no formal announcements about timelines have really been made. These include the potential 2012 Nissan Denki Cube EV and the Nissan Nuvu, which launched at the 2008 Paris Motor Show. Fisker Automotive is hoping to bring a full plug-in sports car called the Karma to our shores by late-2009. And the Mitsubishi iMiEV has been seen testing in California as well. And ahead-of-the-curve Tesla will be delivering a rear-wheel drive sedan at some point in the future.

…and the list continues to grow.

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