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Events Fri Feb 11 2011

The Electric Car is Reborn

The Chicago Auto Show opened today, and if you head over to McCormick Place, you might notice a change from previous years: those electric cars that had been mere science fiction as recently as last year are now reality.

While few of these cars are actually available for purchase right now, and none of them is available in Illinois at the moment, many have been rolled out somewhere in the U.S., with plans to come to the Chicago area later this year or in 2012. For the most part, these cars are compact hatchbacks with a look reminiscent of the Toyota Prius, but each manufacturer has put its own twist on the car of the future...or, rather, the car of the present.

Ford Focus ElectricThe Ford Focus Electric, which is due out by the end of the year, looks a lot like the standard-model Focus from the outside, but appearances can be deceiving. This all-electric vehicle boasts a 100-mile range, which exceeds many of its competitors. As with EVs, the range varies depending on how the car is driven. Because the Focus Electric's battery gets a boost from regenerative braking, drivers who ease into stops rather than slamming on the brakes will see a boost in range. The car has a "Brake Coach" screen that will help drivers maximize this recaptured energy. While the Focus Electric comes with a 120V plug, installing a 240V charging station will cut charge time from 12-20 hours to 3-4 hours. Ford is working with Best Buy to arrange an affordable charging station installation package for those who want that 240V boost. The car also features seats made of post-industrial materials and bio-based polyurethane cushions, and other parts also utilize recycled materials. Top speed is about 84 mph. No price has been announced.

Nissan Leaf You've probably already heard about the Nissan Leaf, which was released in several markets in late 2010. Specs-wise, the Leaf has a lot in common with the Focus Electric: 100-mile range, recycled material in the seats and other parts, regenerative braking. While the Leaf takes longer to charge than the Focus, it also has some unique advantages. A dashboard navigation system works hard to make sure you know how long you've got before you'll need to recharge, and even tells you where the nearest charging stations are. An optional solar panel charges a separate power source that runs the car's accessories, so they don't diminish your driving range. Top speed is about 90 mph. The Leaf should be available nationwide by late 2011. Prices start at $32,780.

Chevy Volt and Charging StationBy far the most visible electric at this year's show, the Chevy Volt might also be the most exciting. In addition to it's slick profile, drivers can get excited about the extended range capabilities that were specially designed for the Volt. A smaller battery gives its electric drive unit a range of only 25-50 miles, but that gives the Volt room for a 1.4L engine that extends its range up to another 344 miles. Sure, including a gasoline component makes the car less "green," but it also gives the vehicle a wider appeal, something that Chevy is taking very seriously. As Britta Gross, Director of Global Energy Systems for GM, put it, "We have an ambition and hope that this is not just a niche."

Since the majority of car trips are well under 50 miles, most drives won't employ the gasoline engine, but the extended range means the Volt could potentially be your only car. And because the gasoline engine diverts its power to the electric drive, the transition between driving modes is smooth. Charging takes 10-12 hours on a standard 110V outlet, and about four hours at 240V, and top speed is about 100 mph. The Volt is already available in some markets, though not our own. It will be available in all 50 states by the end of the year, and starts at $32,780 $40,280, before a $7500 federal tax credit, for which all electric vehicle purchases should qualify.

Prius Plug-In HybridIf you love Toyota's ubiquitous Prius Hybrid, but you want to be able say you own an electric car, look no further than the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, due out in 2012. While it has the fuel efficiency and power of the standard Prius at its core, the electric component of the PHV is relatively minimal. Electric-only driving has a maximum range of about 13 miles, and a top speed of 60mph. That said, the relatively smaller battery charges in only three hours, and the hybrid engine eliminates that pesky EV problem, "range anxiety." No price is set at this point.

smart electric dash
Mitsubishi i-MiEVMoving into the ultra-compact arena, show-goers can keep their eyes peeled for the smart fortwo electric drive and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV. The smart fortwo electric takes the diminutive smart car and makes it even greener. Essentially identical to its non-electric counterpart, the smart electric is currently being driven by 250 U.S. lessees, and should be released in 40 markets worldwide (including the U.S.) in 2012. It has a maximum range of about 98 miles and top speed is 62.5 miles. Both coupe and cabriolet versions will be available, and the car includes a neat "preconditioning" feature, which adjusts the interior temperature of the car while it's still plugged in, reducing the battery drain that heating and cooling can cause. Pricing is a little scary for the typically affordable brand; the price on the display vehicle was over $44,000. That said, pricing, top speed, range, and other details may improve before the big 2012 rollout.

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV, or simply "i," has been available in Japan and Europe for some time, and is set to be rolled out in New England and the West Coast this November, with Illinois as a part of the second roll-out phase. This 100% electric vehicle has a range of 85 miles and had three driving modes to optimize range and performance. Its top speed is estimated at 81 mph. No U.S. price has been announced, but the Japanese version should cost around $30,000.

The success of the electric car hinges on public acceptance and improved infrastructure. "Quick-charge" stations that can charge the battery from 0-80% in 30 minutes are a key part of all manufacturer's EV visions, but they've got a long way to go before they're as omnipresent as gas pumps. But if anything can guarantee the proliferation of electric vehicles and charging stations, it is the heightening competition that auto manufacturers face from one another in the electric market. Hopefully, each company's desire to corner this new market will be enough to finally bring the electric car back from the dead.

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Ryan / February 11, 2011 7:02 PM

You list the MSRP of the Leaf PRE $7,500 rebate, but the Volt POST $7,500 rebate. So it's a little misleading. The Volt starting MSRP is actually $7,500 higher than the Leaf.

Marissa FlaxbartAuthor Profile Page / February 12, 2011 8:39 PM

Good catch, Ryan! Sorry for this discrepancy. A note to this effect now appears in the body of the story.

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