Hybrid and Electric Powered Cars, Now and in the Future

Hybrids and Electric Powered Cars, Now and in the Future

Now that the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and 2011 Nissan Leaf are arriving at dealerships and plugging into owners' homes, the renaissance of the electric-powered vehicle has officially begun.

Cars.com recently purchased a Volt for a long-term, all-season test to tackle the many questions consumers will have about living with these types of vehicles for the long haul. You can follow our coverage here.

There is currently high demand for the Leaf and the Volt, leaving many potential buyers sitting on the sidelines wondering when they can join the electric-car race. If you have $100,000 for an all-electric Tesla Roadster, you can buy one today. Don't worry — more practical and less expensive options will join these vehicles this year, including an electric version of Ford's new Focus. But it will still take some time before EVs are as easy and common to buy as a typical hybrid is today.

More and more plug-in cars, either full electric or plug-in hybrid, are coming onto the market.

EVs are not a new concept; they were among the earliest cars on the road. Gas-powered versions edged them out because of a century's worth of cheap oil, weak battery technology and long-distance highway travel. Despite a small resurgence in California in the 1990s, the electric car has been more myth than reality over the past 20 years. Recent volatility in gas prices helped reignite interest in EVs.

Tomorrow's EVs won't be limited to just small, sporty cars like the Tesla Roadster. "Different people need different cars," said Sherry Boschert, vice president of Plug-in America, a nonprofit advocacy group for EVs. Because of that, car companies are planning to build plug-in trucks, commercial vans, SUVs and sedans.

A major hurdle for EVs has been range anxiety — the fear that your electric car won't be able to get you everywhere you need to be, or at least back from there. Some automakers, including GM, have added onboard gas- or ethanol-powered generators to their EVs. "The internal combustion engine is like a security policy that makes [drivers] feel safe," Boschert said. The gas engine kicks in when the batteries are running out of juice.

New battery technology that will ensure a longer range may help make EVs more attractive to consumers. Lithium-ion batteries are relatively new, but their chemistry will be used in all of tomorrow's plug-ins. Why? "You get the same amount of power with only half the weight of nickel-metal-hydride batteries. They're smaller and have a higher power density," said Nick Cappa, Chrysler's advanced technology spokesman. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries are used in many of today's hybrid vehicles.

To help offset the cost of electric cars, the federal government offers EV buyers tax credits from $2,500 to $7,500. Nissan advertises the Leaf's "net" price with a $7,500 tax credit instead of the MSRP. Most EVs are expected to qualify for the maximum credit.

The following is a list of EV models backed by automakers, investors and companies. Four models are on the road right now, with many more to come soon. In today's economy, some of the cars planned could fail if capital and consumer spending remains slow.

"A lot can happen between now and then," Boschert said. "I know well enough from experience that seeing is believing. Until you can go out and buy [an EV], it's not certain."

Electric Powered Vehicles Already on the Road

Tesla Roadster: This two-seat sports roadster is the poster child of the EV revolution, and the sleek-looking sports machine has a 244-mile range. With the fed's $7,500 tax credit, the Tesla Roadster's MSRP is $101,500.

Chevrolet Volt: This four-passenger compact vehicle uses an electric motor to power the wheels along with an onboard gas generator to recharge the battery pack. The Volt can run up to 40 miles on electricity alone and travel 400 miles between gas-station fill-ups.

Nissan Leaf: The Leaf is an all-electric five-seat hatchback that is available in select markets and will become widely available in 2011, according to Nissan. Unlike the Volt, the Leaf doesn't use a range-extender engine to charge the battery. On a full charge, the Leaf's range is rated at 100 miles; top speed is said to be more than 90 mph.

Ford Transit Connect Electric: Intended for commercial use, the Transit Connect Electric utility van is Ford's first battery-electric vehicle, with a range of about 80 miles. Ford rolled it out last year only to a few select commercial fleets, but it is expected to be offered to regular consumers this year.

Electric Vehicles on the Horizon

Production plans for the following electric vehicles could change depending on product development and other conditions. The year represents the date of intended retail sales.

Ford Focus Electric, 2011: The toughest competitor for the Volt and Leaf will be the electric version of Ford's sharp-looking new Focus compact car. It will have a similar range as the Leaf but promises to cut charging time in half. Expect to wait until the end of this year for it to go on sale.

CODA Sedan, 2011: This is one of a number of smaller companies on our list having trouble getting production off the ground. A number of executives have left the company, putting the $44,900 EV somewhat in doubt despite the fact the vehicle has approval for the government's $7,500 tax credit.

Fisker Karma, 2011: The four-passenger plug-in hybrid luxury sports sedan will have a 50-mile electric driving range, the company says. It's scheduled to be available in March 2011. Like the Volt, the Karma will use a range-extender engine to increase total range up to 300 miles. The hybrid combo will propel the vehicle from zero to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds.

Fiat 500 EV, 2012: A gasoline-powered Fiat 500 will hit the U.S. this year, and an all-electric version is scheduled for 2012. The 500 EV will use technology from Chrysler and its electric program, though many important specs, including the vehicle's range and cost, remain under wraps.

Toyota Prius Plug-in, 2012: A plug-in version of the popular Prius hatchback will go on sale in the first half of 2012, Toyota says. It will be capable of driving 13 miles on battery power up to speeds of 60 mph. Because of that limited range before the gas-hybrid system takes over, recharging the car will take just 1.7 hours on a 220-volt outlet. It will be offered in the 14 states where the most current Prius units are sold in 2012, with the rest of the country having to wait until 2013.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV, 2011-12: This small four-seat electric car has an 80-100-mile range. The i-MiEV  is expected to go on sale in the U.S. by March 2012 in the Northeast and be available nationwide by the end of 2012. Expect pricing of this car to be around $30,000 before any tax incentives, Mitsubishi says.

Miles EV Highway Speed, TBD: Miles EV says its five-passenger electric sedan is undergoing safety testing. Expected range is 100 miles. However, any mention of an on-sale date has been removed from its website.

Think City, TBD: This European company is still waiting on loans from the U.S. Department of Energy before starting production. The City will be manufactured in Elkhart, Ind. Built for urban environments, the small City electric car will first see use in New York City. Its range is an estimated 100 miles, and Think says its City can reach highway speeds.

Tesla Model S, 2012: Tesla wants to follow up its Roadster with a five-passenger EV sedan. The sedan would have a 240-mile range with an expected price around $60,000, according to Tesla. The company has delayed its original target date to at least 2012.

© Cars.com 02/1/2011