Electric Cars: A Definitive Guide
What Is An Electric Car?
An electric car is powered by an electric motor instead of a gasoline engine. The electric motor gets energy from a controller, which regulates the amount of power—based on the driver’s use of an accelerator pedal. The electric car (sometimes called an electric vehicle) uses energy stored in its rechargeable batteries, which are recharged by common household electricity.
Mitsubishi plans to deliver the all-electric iMiEV by 2010.
Unlike a hybrid car—which runs on a combination of gasoline and electricity—an electric car (also known as a battery-electric vehicle or BEV, often shortened to simply EV) is powered exclusively by electricity. Historically, EVs have not been widely adopted because of limited driving range before needing to be recharged, long recharging times, and a lack of commitment by automakers to produce and market electric cars that have all the creature comforts of gas-powered cars. That’s changing. As battery technology improves—simultaneously increasing energy storage and reducing the cost of batteries—major automakers are expected to begin introducing a new generation of electric cars.
Electric cars produce no tailpipe emissions, reduce our dependency on oil, and are cheaper to operate. Of course, the process of producing the electricity moves the emissions further upstream to the utility company’s smokestack—but even dirty electricity used in electric cars usually reduces our collective carbon footprint.
Another factor is convenience: In one trip to the gas station, you can pump 330 kilowatt-hours of energy into a 10-gallon tank. It would take about 9 days to get the same amount of energy from household electric current. Fortunately, it takes hours and not days to recharge an electric car, because it’s much more efficient. Also, electric motors develop their highest torque from zero rpms—meaning fast (and silent) zero-to-60 acceleration times.
Up and Coming Electric Cars
Just as the major car companies were crushing their electric car programs, the perfect storm was brewing on the horizon: Hurricane Katrina, growing acceptance of global warming, runaway Prius sales, oil price spikes, green marketing galore…The major auto companies went right back to the drawing board and emerged with big plans for electric cars early in the next decade.
Mitsubishi plans to mass-market a small electric vehicle by 2010. The production vehicle will be a derivative of the iMiEV (Mitsubishi in-wheel Electric Vehicle) Sport Concept. The production will likely use a single 47 kW motor and 16 kWh lithium ion batteries—to yield about 75 miles of range and a top speed of 80 miles per hour. The vehicle will be a four-seater with a real usable back seat.
The Achilles Heel of electric cars has been the limited range they can travel between charges. The Subaru R1e could help change that. The diminutive two-seater, about 20 inches longer than a Smart ForTwo, has a top speed of 65 miles per hour and a range of 50 miles. More importantly, the time to recharge the 346-volt lithium ion battery pack has been reduced to about 15 minutes. Here’s the hitch: To get the faster charging time, you need a special stationary charger. Using the onboard standard charger puts the electricity refueling time back to about eight hours.
Despite considerable media buzz for Daimler’s Smart ForTwo, microcars have not taken American roads by storm. Perhaps consumers may be more forgiving of the lack of size and power if the Smart is offered with an electric drive. The first models will likely go to Europe in about 2010. Availability in the US is uncertain. The car will provide 70 miles of range and 70 miles per hour on the freeway. Recharge time from 30 to 80 percent capacity is about three and a half hours. The gas version of the Smart ForTwo has earned low marks for handling, especially at higher speeds.
Nissan Cube EV
By most accounts, Nissan missed the boat on hybrids. But the company is determined not to be left out of an electric car renaissance. Nissan’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn said that the company will be first to market with an entire lineup of zero-emission electric cars. Details of specific vehicles have been sketchy, but Nissan engineers recently displayed an electric vehicle that looked like a large version of its box-shaped Denki Cube (and also announced plans for an all-electric Megane sedan). The production version of the electric vehicle will be introduced in 2010 in Japan, and will roll out to fleets in the US around 2012.
General Motors insists that the Chevrolet Volt is an “extended-range electric vehicle.” Others say it carries electric motors and a gas-powered engine, so it’s a plug-in hybrid. You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to… Regardless, the Volt is credited for stirring up the race to electric driving by promising gas-free transportation for 40 miles of driving—well beyond what most Americans travel on a daily basis. The vehicle is slated for introduction in late 2010, with availability only in certain states or cities in the first years. The Volt will be a small, four-door hatchback based on GM’s global small-car architecture. The purchase price will be approximately $40,000.
The following companies have announced intentions to produce electric vehicles, but have not discussed specific vehicle details: Ford, Toyota, Chrysler, Volkswagen, and Peugeot Citroën.
Limited Run Electric Cars
Not content to follow the slow timelines from the major car companies, a number of entrepreneurs have taken the bold step of building mainstream highway-capable all-electric vehicles. The payoff could be big—but the logistical hurdles, such as federal highway crash testing, are daunting and very expensive. Those costs will get passed on to customers—those that are willing to wait for months or years for innovative companies to roll out models even in small quantities.
The Tesla Roadster is a screaming-fast, all-electric two-seater sports car built on the frame of the Lotus Elise. The specs, if they can be delivered, are impressive: 0 – 60 mph in less than four seconds, 135-mpg equivalent, 200-mile range, and a brilliant tech design that wires together nearly 7,000 mass-commodity rechargeable lithium batteries. The price? Just north of $100,000. Tesla has faced serious technology and corporate hurdles in delivering its first vehicles. Only a few Tesla Roadsters have been shipped so far, but the company plans to expand production to 1,600 annually for 2009 and 2010.
Th!nk—formerly owned by Ford— could become a leader in the emerging EV market in the United States. The company is on its sixth generation of the Th!nk City, a $28,000 two-seater car with a maximum speed of 65 miles per hour—and a driving range of 125 miles. Recharge time is about four hours. Th!nk City is loaded with all kinds of safety features and creature comforts—as well as a choice of battery leasing plans. If something goes wrong, Th!nk replaces the battery. In July 2008, the company said it was producing cars for the European market at a rate of three to five a day. It’ll be a few years before the vehicle crosses the pond to the US.
The Miles XS500 is the brainchild of Miles Rubin, a mega-millionaire octogenarian. Rubin spent $35 million of his own money, and he expects to double that figure to get the Miles XS500, a highway-capable car, to market. The Miles XS500, currently under development with an optimistic delivery date in 2009, will top 80 mph and travel approximately 120 miles on a single charge. The batteries take as long as six hours to charge from being depleted halfway—from a 220-volt service. The company is targeting a sales price of $30,000 to $35,000, but the first models hitting European streets, will cost closer to $60,000. The vehicle has yet to undergo federal crash testing. The ground-up vehicle, which looks like a generic four-door sedan, was designed by Pininfarina, legendary Italian car design firm.
Within the Limited Run category, a number of companies are converting existing gas-engine models into electric vehicles:
Phoenix Motorcars SUT (Sport Utility Truck)
Phoenix Motorcars, based in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., begins with an engine-less vehicle supplied by Ssangyong, Korea’s fourth largest automaker. (Ssangyong doesn’t sell cars in the United States). The company adds a 100 kW electric motor system, high-performance motors, generators, controllers, and rechargeable batteries to produce a practical truck that offers a 1,000 pounds of payload capacity, 120 horsepower performance capable of 0-60 mph in less than 10 seconds, and top speeds of 95 mph. Plug the vehicle into a 220-volt outlet for about six hours using the on-board charger to achieve about 130 miles of range. Phoenix Motorcars sells the vehicle for about $45,000. (Word on the street is that Phoenix hasn’t made any deliveries.)
Your first stop in buying AC Propulsion’s eBox is a visit to your local Scion dealer to purchase a 5-speed Scion xB wagon, for about $15,000. Or AC Propulsion will coordinate the purchase of an xB near their San Dimas, Calif. headquarters. Then, their engineers will remove the internal combustion engine and related components, and install AC Propulsion’s electric drive and battery system composed of more than 5,000 small cells. The cost of conversion will add another $55,000 to the purchase price. The company expects to build about 20 to 25 eBoxes a year.
In the early 1990s, the Solectria Corporation of Wilmington, Massachusetts (now Azure Dynamics Corporation), managed to convert about 400 Geo Metros into an electric vehicle called the Solectria “Force.” Top speeds are about 70 mpg, and 13 12-volt lead acid cells provide about 40 miles of range. Solectria Force owners (http://portev.org/solectria/ ) rarely let go of these vehicles.
Limited runs of the following all-electric sports car are extremely limited: the UEV Spyder, Mullen L1x-75, and the Venturi Fetish, selling for about $75,000, $125,000, and $300,000 respectively.
Low-Speed and Three-Wheel Electric Cars
Caption for Aptera Type 1:
The arduous road to delivering a new highway-speed electric vehicle to the market can be bypassed in two primary ways: limiting the electric vehicle to three wheels (so it can be legally classified as a motorcycle) or limiting the vehicles legal top speed to 25 miles per hour (so it can avoid highway crash testing). Those strategies lower the “barrier to entry,” opening the gates to scores of fledgling companies offering some mighty funky machines. It’s a long list, so we’ll keep our descriptions to a minimum. We’ve also eliminated companies with unusual or questionable business practices, such as Sparks EV, Zap, and Porteon—and products not directly sell in North America, such as British-based G-Wiz EV and Kewet Buddy from Norway.
Winner of the funkiest EV design award, the Aptera Type 1, looks like a cross between a motorcycle and ultralight single-occupant airplane. Built near San Diego, and selling for approximately $27,000, the Aptera is competing in the Automotive X Prize competition. Four hundred potential buyers have paid a $500 refundable deposit in anticipation of production in late 2009. The Aptera Type 1 will only be available in California, to allow the company to service the vehicles. A plug-in hybrid version is also being developed.
Dynasty Electric Car Company, formerly based in British Columbia, Canada, offers five different variants of its low-speed electric vehicle, including a sedan, mini pick-up, van and two open-air versions. The “It,” which has a range of about 30 miles and a top speed of about 30 miles per hour, sells for approximately $20,000. In May 2008, the company was purchased by Pakistani automaker Karakoram Motors.
Global Electric Motorcars (GEM), a Chrysler corporation, is the granddaddy of neighborhood electric vehicle companies. GEM offers approximately six models, ranging in price from about $7,000 to $13,000, and primarily sells to resorts, universities and retirement communities. GEM models aren’t the most exciting, but they’re here now and they work!
The Kurrent, an electric car originally designed in Italy, is produced in small quantities by American Electric Vehicle in Ferndale, Michigan. The vehicle uses lead acid batteries to deliver a range of about 40 miles. The company has a few select dealers throughout the country, and also offers home delivery for about $800. Orders can be placed via a toll-free number. The price competes with GEM products at approximately $10,000—but offers more “amenities,” such as windshield wipers, doors, headlights, seatbelts and a trunk.
The Myers NmG is a funky, single-occupant three-wheeled electric vehicle made by Myers Motors in Tallmadge, Ohio. The “personal electric vehicle,” which features two wheels in the front and one in the back is $36,000. It uses thirteen 12-volt, lead acid batteries that can be charged through a standard 110-volt outlet. Six to eight hours of charging will carry you approximately 30 miles.
The Tango T600 electric car, from Commuter Cars in Spokane, Wash., is 102 inches long and only 39 inches wide. In other words, it’s as tall as most conventional cars, not quite as long, but only half the size from side to side. That means driver in front and passenger in back—like a tandem bicycle. The price exceeds $100,000.
The Venture One $20,000 three-wheeled, two-seater tilt-a-whirl motorcycle-car gizmo is expected in 2009. The fully electric version, featuring two in-wheel 20 kW electric motors and a 17 kWh lithium ion battery pack, delivers approximately 120 miles on a single charge. Plug-in hybrid versions are also in the works from Venture Vehicles in Los Angeles.
Made in Toronto, Canada, the ZENN is a neighborhood electric vehicle with a range of approximately 35 miles and a full recharge time of 8 to 9 hours from a conventional electrical outlet. A base-level ZENN—no air conditioning or power windows—sells for approximately $16,000. The company has future plans to launch a high-speed model called the cityZENN, offering 80 mph top speed and 250-mile range.
Discontinued and Rare Electric Cars
The most promising recent period for electric vehicles was the 1990s—at least it seemed so at the time. In September 1990, the California Air Resources Board mandated that 2 percent of all new cars sold by major automakers in California would be “zero emission” vehicles by 1998—growing to 10 percent by 2003. That sent automakers scrambling to produce electric vehicles for the mass market. Obviously, things didn’t work out as planned. (See “Who Killed the Electric Car” for details.) Very few units were ever produced, and nearly all of them were destroyed. The remaining units are extremely hard to find and very expensive.
From 1997 to 2003, Toyota made approximately 1,500 all-electric versions of its popular RAV4 model. From the outside, the RAV4 EV looks the same as a gasoline version of the vehicle, and has all the versatility of a small utility vehicle. The top speed is approximately 80 miles per hour—with a range of about 100 miles, and a full recharge time of five hours. Most of the vehicles were destroyed, but miraculously, Toyota allowed 328 RAV4 EVs to be sold. The suggested retail price, at the time, was $42,000. A rare used RAV4 EV can sell these days for $70,000 or more.
Time Magazine named it one of the 50 worst cars of all time, but the customers who leased the EV1 had a quasi-religious devotion to the zippy two-seater. General Motors made fewer than 1,000 EV1s by the time the company canceled production, claiming that demand was too limited for a two-seater with a range of about 120 miles, and a recharge time of approximately eight hours. GM crushed nearly every single EV1, so even its biggest devotees cannot find a used EV1 to purchase.
Honda EV Plus
The Honda EV Plus was a two-door model, but could seat four. Driving range was approximately 100 miles. Only about 300 EV Plus units were made and sold—and the purchase price was a hefty $53,000. Most were destroyed, leaving a non-existent market for the vehicle.
Ford Electric Ranger
Ford produced the Electric Ranger from 1998 to 2002. Most of the 1,500 units were leased to fleets, although a handful of vehicles were sold to individuals. Nearly all leases were terminated between 2003 and 2005. Ford made a few Ford Electric Rangers using nickel metal hydride batteries, which yielded 65 miles in range. Most used lead acid batteries, with a more limited range. The rare used Ford Electric Ranger has appears on eBay for anywhere between $10,000 and $25,000.
The Nissan Altra was produced between 1998 and 2002—although only about 200 vehicles were made. By appearances, the Nissan Altra EV looked like a regular mid-sized station wagon. The Altra offered ample cargo room and numerous amenities, such as power mirrors and windows, keyless entry, and four-wheel anti-lock brakes. Top speed for the Nissan Altra was 80 mph, and it could travel about 100 miles between charges.
Chevrolet S-10 Electric
Fewer than 500 Chevy S10 Electric vehicles were produced. Range was 90 miles. Most were leased to fleets (and subsequently destroyed), but approximately 60 were sold and could appear in auctions. (Photo by Mike Weston.)
Chrysler Epic Electric Minivan
Chrysler released the all-electric no-frills Chrysler Epic minivan in 1998. The acronym EPIC stands for Electric Powered Interurban Commuter. Driving range was approximately 80 miles, with recharge times of four to five hours. Performance was modest, with a 0 – 60 mph time of 16 seconds.
Did we miss a crucial electric vehicle? Are our facts straight? Let us know so we can keep this page complete and up-to-date. Thanks.
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