The E-Car Update

Want to Buy an Electric? Get Ready to Hurry Up and Wait

If you are lucky enough to live in the state of California, you can-today-visit a car dealer and drive home in a brand-new, road-ready electric vehicle (EV). If you live anywhere else, the pickings are pretty slim. Although strict new Clean Air Act standards and state laws are more or less mandating that fleets of EVs will be on the road by 2003, most manufacturers are still doing little more than playing around with prototypes, or making-literally-handmade “production” models available to the public in small numbers and at a very steep price. They’re available mostly in the west because of uncertainty over battery performance in the frigid east, and because California is taking the lead in requiring EVs on its roads. (That will soon change, now that the federal courts have upheld a New York law that requires electric car sales in 1998.)

Chevrolet Photo

Chevrolet offers electric S-10 pickups.

The mass-market electric car isn’t here yet-most “sales” are really leases, and they’re made to utilities and other large-scale fleet operators with very deep pockets. Europe, where EVs are a common sight as delivery vehicles, is way ahead. Detroit’s “Big Three” are-slowly and reluctantly-beginning to build electric cars, while also fighting the mandates that require them and the new federal anti-smog rules that make them all but inevitable. Headlines were made last December when the General Motors EV-1 went on the market in a lease-only ($300 a month) arrangement in California and Arizona. The EV-1, which would retail for $33,995 if it was actually for sale, is an impressive, built-from-scratch AC electric that cost GM $350 million in development outlay. In its initial form, it used lead-acid batteries and a special ultra-safe, no-shock charger.

The EV-1 has made many friends among car testers for its quick acceleration (0-60 mph in less than eight seconds) and almost-sports car handling. The drawback is its range-with lead-acid batteries, the EV-1 can travel only 60 to 70 miles on a single charge. But that will change, says Don Hudler, president and CEO of the EV-1’s parent company, Saturn. Speaking to a group of journalists from the International Motor Press Association (IMPA) last July, Hudler announced a switch to longer-range (and much more expensive) nickel metal-hydride batteries by the end of 1997.

How’s the EV-1 doing? Saturn has leased only about 200 so far, reflecting the public’s uncertainty about the new technology. Even in EV-friendly California, there’s still a very tentative network of recharging stations. Leasees, some of them celebrities, say they’re happy with their cars, though. “I originally bought the EV-1 because of the environmental considerations,” says Baywatch actress Alexandra Paul, who’s had three EVs. “But now I’m really excited about it because it’s a great car and it’s fun.”

The Upstarts

The closest thing to a competitor for the EV-1 is the Sunrise from Massachusetts-based Solectria. The Sunrise is, like the EV-1, a completely new four-seat, two-door electric car, using composite body panels to reduce weight and increase range. It also has a more efficient AC drive and, as an option, nickel metal-hydride batteries. It even looks a bit like the EV-1. But the Sunrise sacrifices quick acceleration (0-60 mph takes 17 seconds) for range. It will reportedly travel 200 miles on one charge, when equipped with nickel metal-hydride batteries. Solectria hopes to sell the Sunrise for only $20,000.

Karl Thidemann, director of marketing for Solectria, says that the Sunrise will be formally introduced to the world in December 1997, but the first few production models have already been sold to customers (mostly utilities and government agencies). The problem is that those buyers paid $100,000 for the handbuilt cars. “We hope to go into larger-scale production next year,” Thidemann says, adding that Solectria is in talks with joint venture partners. “We don’t expect to sell thousands and thousands for $100,000 each,” Thidemann admits. “We’re still in the experimental stages with a limited-production vehicle.”

While waiting for the Sunrise, EV enthusiasts should look at Solectria’s established Force model, a lower-cost conversion of the Geo Metro. The Force will take 18 seconds just to reach 50 mph. And while it won’t impress the neighbors, it will travel 105 miles on (optional) Ovonic nickel metal-hydride batteries, and reach 70 mph. What’s more, Solectria is having a sale! “For a limited time only,” a Force with lead-acid batteries and such extras as a stereo cassette unit and an onboard charger (3.5 hours recharge time) costs $35,950.

For about the same price as a Force, you could be driving a factory-built EV based on the Ford Ranger pickup. According to Sarah Tatchio of Ford’s environmental and safety public affairs office, Ford has pre-sold 200 of the $32,795 lead-acid Rangers, and expects to sell 1,000 in the 1998 model year. Again, most vehicles will disappear into fleets, “but we’re always happy to have a regular retail customer,” Tatchio says. There are no geographic restrictions, but regional dealerships have to have five to 10 orders before a service support program can be created.

The Ranger’s 39 batteries, weighing 2,000 pounds, are stowed under the pickup’s bed-without affecting ride height. With lead-acid batteries (nickel metal-hydride versions arrive late in the 1998 model year), a realistic range is only 50 miles.

A Waiting Game

Chrysler has been relatively quiet about its EPIC electric minivan program. Fifteen of the $45,000 vans went to federal agencies in 1997, and two are in a demonstration program at Southern California Edison. According to Mike Clement, Chrysler’s manager of alternative fuel vehicles, “This year, they’re strictly fleet vehicles. Our focus is on California, where we have the best chance of satisfying our customers-because it’s warm and relatively flat.” Like Ford, Chrysler is switching to nickel metal-hydride batteries late in the ‘98 model year.

Going electric isn’t all that easy this year, but there may be some shocking developments soon.

Do you want an electric car with nickel metal-hydride batteries right now? Head for California, the only place where Honda is leasing its nifty EV Plus, a very compact commuter car, for $499 a month (with the advanced batteries as standard). Since the battery packs cost as much as $30,000 (and have a three-year lifespan), it’s safe to say Honda is losing money on the program. “We intend to lease 300 [at four selected dealers] over the next couple of years, but we have no definite plans beyond that,” says Honda’s Robert Bienenfeld, EV program manager. At presstime, 25 had been leased, with a target of 15 a month. The made-in-Japan EV Plus has a “real world” range of 60 to 80 miles, but Pete Lord of Santa Clarita, California, who shares his EV Plus with his wife and teenage daughter, has gotten as much as 92 miles out of a charge. Tim Hastrup, who lives in Granite Bay, northeast of Sacramento, is equally enthusiastic about his EV Plus. “It meets 95 percent of our car needs,” he s

ays. “We love everything about it but the price.”

Other Japanese carmakers are running relatively low-key programs. Toyota has converted its RAV4 mini sport-utility, which is so far available only to fleets in the three states with electric car mandates: New York, Massachusetts and California. Nissan isn’t selling to the American public yet, but it is marketing the electric Prairie Joy minivan in Japan with advanced Sony lithium ion batteries.

Going electric isn’t all that easy this year, but stay tuned for some shocking developments.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.