Charge!

The race is on to create an affordable and attractive electric vehicle that you'll actually want to drive, writes Richard Russell.

Published: 07-Feb-2009

In tune with current economic conditions, practical plug-in electric vehicles have replaced dream-away-at-any-budget concept cars on the show circuit this year.

Most major automakers are showing off upcoming models that you will plug into an electrical outlook more often than you will take to a gas station.

These newcomers leapfrog current and upcoming gas-electric hybrids that use a combination of electric motors and conventional engines. Forward motion will come from electric motors only and, in some cases, conventional internal-combustion engines will be used to recharge the battery packs as the need arises.

Plug-in electric vehicles have moved past the golf-cart era and into conventional-looking passenger cars expected to start appearing at a dealership near you in 2010. These aren't backyard one-offs or shady-quality contraptions from unknown entities. Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes and Toyota all are well down the path to plug-in electric vehicles within the next three years. All have pre-production or well-developed working concepts to showcase their new wares.

The Chevrolet Volt has gotten most of the headlines and attention since it first appeared on the auto-show circuit a couple years ago. The Volt is a Malibu-size four-door that parent General Motors insists is on schedule for production and sales late next year.

The Volt will use an electric-drive technology called Voltec, which features a large T-shape battery positioned as the spine of the car to provide power for an electric motor that drives the wheels. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine-generator sort of an emergency backup will recharge the batteries as necessary when the Volt is driven past its 40-mile electric range. GM says the top speed would be about 125 mph. Recharging will take about three hours at 220 volts and eight from a regular 120-volt outlet.

Because electric vehicles require little cooling, they don't need a grille and with no transmission or drive shafts, the designers have an almost-clean canvas to work from. Accordingly, GM has come up with a new platform that adapts to their whims. The most recent example is the stunning Cadillac Converj concept. The low-slung four-seater uses the same powertrain as the Volt. GM has announced plans for a new production facility in the Detroit, Mich., area to produce batteries for the Volt and its coming siblings. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, GM execs must be bursting at the seams with pride because many of the other new electric vehicles from other manufacturers feature technology very similar to that of the Volt.

Chrysler is shopping around a total of four extended-range concepts including a sports car, sport-utility vehicle, minivan and four-door sedan. The two-seat Dodge Circuit is set to go into production next year. It is based on a Lotus sports-car platform and is expected to be capable of 120 mph with zero-to-60-mph sprints of less than five seconds. One of best-looking electric vehicles so far, hands down, is the rear-drive Chrysler 200C EV. Ralph Gilles, Vice-President of Design for Chrysler, said that it's his favorite.

It's so beautiful you'd never even guess it was an electric car.

Chrysler is calling its electric technology ENVI.

Mercedes is showing off an electrically driven compact car that could be available in different formats. Dubbed BlueZERO, it's a pure battery vehicle when wearing the E-Cell suffix, while the E-Cell Plus uses a small gas engine to add juice to the batteries as they run down, thereby extending the range so as not to leave drivers stranded. Further down the road is the F-Cell that could use a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity for the motor. Mercedes also plans to produce this vehicle in 2010 and to build its own batteries.

Not to be left out, Ford says it will join Chrysler, GM and Mercedes in bringing an electric vehicle to market next year. The company's first electric effort will be a battery-powered commercial van, which will be followed by a small four-door car under joint-development with Canadian-based Magna International. Ford says this car will be capable of going more than 125 miles between charges.

Toyota has displayed the FT-EV battery-powered concept that's heavily based on the tiny four-seat iQ mini-car just introduced in Japan. It says it will have a version of this to market by 2012.

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