Thanks, in part, to advances in technology and increased consumer demand for alternative fuel vehicles cars, automakers like Nissan, GM, and Daimler are now in the process of readying electric cars for the mass market. Thanks to strong demand, GM is doubling its production capacity for the highly anticipated Chevy Volt. Nissan has even taken a $1.6 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan to modify an existing US plant to manufacture the Leaf.
And some manufacturers are hoping to appeal to customers’ aesthetic sensibilities. Tesla has recently hired a retail expert George Blankenship, who has worked with GAP and Apple, to bolster its retail presence.
The following cars are either in production or will soon be in production and available for sale in the United States within a year or two. None of the prices include the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric cars. State tax credits vary by state from as much as $5,000 in Georgia to $36 in D.C.
Which early entrant into the electric car field is the most appealing?
When It’ll Be Available: The Leaf will hit the market this December in limited quantities and in limited markets, but a full US market roll-out is planned for 2012.
The Details: The Leaf is only available with an electric motor that features a top speed of 87 mph. This motor has three levels for recharging: 120V for level one, 220V for level two and 480V for level three. At level one, it takes 20 hours to recharge fully from empty, level two takes eight hours and level three can charge to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes. Level three charging depletes the battery’s capacity 10 percent faster, so Nissan recommends against using level three as the primary charging method.
Innovative features include a small solar panel mounted on the rear spoiler that can trickle charge the auxiliary battery. The Leaf’s battery will have an 8-year 100,000 mile warranty.
MPG: 367 miles per gallon, according to Nissan, though many call this number too generous
What They’re Saying: Autoblog.com reviewed the Leaf and was very pleased with the car. "Few things stand out, and that’s exactly its point. Nissan isn’t out to change the driving experience, it’s just changing the method of motivation. And more than anything else, that’s what’s going to bring electric vehicles into the mainstream," writes the blog.
When It’ll Be Available: The 2011 Volt is set to hit dealers in November, 2010.
The Details: The car has two motors, a 149 horsepower electric motor and a 74 horsepower, 4-cylinder gas engine. The electric motor has a 40-mile range, which Chevy claims to be sufficient for daily commutes, since three-quarters of Americans have an average commute of 33 miles.
After 40 miles, the gas engine kicks in and creates electricity, which helps extend the range of the Volt to over 300 miles.
The Volt is a five-door hatchback that seats four. Seating is limited to four since the battery runs down the center, preventing a middle seat in the rear. A full charge for the Volt’s battery will take 8 hours from a standard 120V American outlet and three hours if a 240V outlet is used.
Price: The base price is $41,000 without any discounts and tax incentives. Some dealers have been charging a premium on top of the sticker price. According to Edmunds.com, one dealer in California is reported to have charged an extra $20,000.
MPG: This contentious fact is still yet to be determined, but definitely far less than GM’s original projections of 230 MPG.
What They’re Saying: Along with the mileage problems, there are concerns about the Volt’s high price and value, as noted by Edmunds.com. "The 2011 Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid is arguably the most fuel-efficient car on the market, but it’s pricey for what you get," according to the review.
Smart Fortwo ED
When It’ll Be Available: In October 2010, Fortwo ED will be available in very limited quantities for testing purposes in select U.S. cities. A total of 250 cars will be available for $599 per month for 48 months and 37,282 miles. Daimler announced that expanded U.S. sales will begin in January, 2012.
The Details: A Microcar, the Smart Fortwo ED is available as a three-door hatchback. The battery can be charged from 20 percent to 80 percent capacity with a 220V outlet in 3 hours. The Fortwo’s range is 84 miles and the top speed is only 62 mph, it can go from 0-37 mph in 6.5 seconds.
The Fortwo uses battery packs made by Tesla, and is based off the original gas-powered Smart Fortwo, which is currently available with a gasoline engine rather than an electric motor.
Price: Base price ranges from $12,635 to $21,635
MPG: 300 miles per gallon.
What They’re Saying: Car and Driver reviewed the Fortwo ED and was pleased with the car’s small size. "It will probably be used as a second car or for people in urban areas who want to take advantage of specific incentives (electric cars are exempt from London’s £8-a-day congestion charge, for instance) or the Fortwo’s size," they write.
And despite its small size, the Smart Fortwo received a “good” rating from IIHS in 8/11 measured injury categories. The NHTSA gives it a four-star frontal driver crash test rating.
When It’ll Be Available: The Coda Sedan is expected to start delivery in the "fourth quarter of 2010."
The Details: The Coda Sedan is the first vehicle from CODA Automotive Inc., a privately held American company in Santa Monica, California. The Coda Sedan is a four door, five-passenger car with a range of up to 120 miles on a single charge. The battery can be fully charged from empty to full in six hours when plugged into a 220V charging station. To save on costs, Coda used an existing gas-powered vehicle and re-engineered it to support an electrical motor.
Price: Final pricing has not been firmly established but it is estimated to be in the low $30,000 range after tax incentives. The company expects this vehicle to receive a 4-5 star NCAP crash rating.
What They’re Saying: The Coda Sedan is based off of the Hafei Saiba, a Chinese car designed by famed the Italian car design firm, Pininfarina. Despite the involvement of Pininfarina, according to the Wall Street Journal, "the first-generation Coda car looks like a generic, midsize Asian sedan."
When It’ll Be Available: Now
The Details: The 2-door roadster can reach 0-60 miles per hour in a mere 3.7 seconds. It has a range of around 240-230 miles on a single charge, although driving it at very high speeds will bring that range down significantly. The Roadster uses a three-phase, four-pole electric motor that has 248 horsepower.
The Tesla Roadster’s body is made entirely of carbon fiber composite, which makes the Tesla one of the least expensive carbon fiber-skinned cars. A custom 240V charging system recharges the battery fully in 3.5 hours.
Efficiency: 135 miles per gallon
What They’re Saying: The Examiner has this to say about the Roadster: "There aren’t too many cars on the road that can handle a turn better or get to sixty miles per hour faster than the Tesla Roadster. "
Tesla Model S
When It’ll Be Available: Deliveries begin in 2012
The Details: The Tesla Model S is being marketed as a competitor to high performance sedans like the BMW 5 series. It’s anticipated to go 0-60 in 5.6 seconds. The initial design was by Henrik Fisker who helped develop such iconic luxury automobiles as the Aston Martin DB9, the V8 Vantage and the BMW Z8.
Price: Prices are estimated to be $57,400 for the standard model with a 160-mile range and $65,000 for the premium model, which has better performance and a 300-mile range. Profits from the Model S are going to be used to fund the development of an even more affordable third vehicle codenamed “BlueStar” with an estimated cost of between $20,000 – $30,000. The Model S can fit seven people within the vehicle. Five adults sit in normal seats and two children in the rear-facing seats in the hatch.
What They’re Saying: Despite the many innovative features, Patrick May of the San Jose Mercury News voiced his concern about the Model S and Tesla, "And they’re putting serious money down in the face of huge obstacles an unproven car company must overcome before its sedan puts rubber to the road."
When It’ll Be Available: Mass production starts in February 2011.
Details: The Karma features an optional solar-paneled roof that helps charge the battery and also aids in the climate control system. The solar panel roof is estimated to provide an additional 4-5 miles a week, assuming continuously sunny days. The electric motor has a range of 50 miles. Additional features include a sport hybrid mode, which uses the gasoline engine along with the electric engine and provides 100 miles per gallon and a 300-mile range, and more torque than a Bugatti Veyron (920 ft-lbf). The Karma has a top speed of 125 miles per hour and can reach 0-60 in 5.8 seconds.
A future model of the Karma will feature a folding hardtop.
Price: $87,900 (manufacturer’s suggested retail price)
Efficiency: 100 miles per gallon
What They’re Saying: The Karma is being launched as a luxury sports sedan. The product is a joint venture between Quantum Technologies and Fisker Coachbuild, and its creation was not without controversy. Tesla has sued Fisker Coachbuild, claiming that Henrik Fisker stole Tesla’s hybrid technology while working on the Tesla Model S prototype.
Consumer Guide praised the Karma, "Forget the Prius, Hollywood. Now there’s a hybrid sedan promising star-quality ‘eco-chic’ style, size, luxury and performance. The $80,000 Karma is conspicuous consumption with a conscience."