Mon, Jul 09, 2012 - Page 14 News List

US electric car market full of spark

PLUGGED IN:Lifetime operating costs of US$6,000 more than fossil-fuel vehicles and battery fires do not seem to have deterred the prospective buyers of all-electric cars

AFP, DETROIT, MICHIGAN

The US market for all-electric cars is charging up, with plug-in vehicles rolling off US dealer lots despite much higher costs, battery fire scares and falling gasoline prices.

Plug-in cars racked up strong sales in the first six months of the year, automakers said, even with their tall sticker prices and lifetime operating costs up to US$6,000 more than conventional gasoline-run vehicles.

General Motors reported it sold more of its US$39,000 Chevrolet Volts in the first six months than it did in all of last year, with 1,760 of the cars delivered to buyers last month.

Toyota said it has sold more than 4,300 of its all-electric version of the popular Prius hybrid since it launched the model in March — even though the plug-in Prius costs, at the US$32,000 base price, a third more than the cheapest hybrid Prius.

Sales of Nissan’s US$35,000 Leaf, one of the first to plumb US drivers’ desire for plug-ins, eased slightly amid higher competition and a change in distribution strategy, but still hit 3,148 units.

The drop owed mainly to the Leaf not having completed the move from its original Web-driven, built-to-order system to more of a traditional dealer-based model, Nissan spokesman Brian Brockman said.

At the high end of the auto market, sales of electrics are full of spark as well.

Fisker Automotive said it has sold more than 1,000 of its US$105,000 luxury plug-in sports car, the Karma, since the start of the year.

And the waiting list for the Tesla Model S, billed as “the world’s first premium electric sedan,” numbered some 10,000 when it released the first cars on June 22. Reserving one of the cars — base price US$50,000 — required a US$5,000 deposit.

Buyers appear to be rejecting any hints that the vehicles might have a downside. Reports of battery fires have hampered the launches of the Volt, Karma and models from BYD, the Chinese company aiming at an exclusively electric vehicle business.

Those worries are being addressed, builders say, and battery specialists are improving their fuel cell technology. A123 Systems of Massachusetts recently disclosed it had come up with a technology to eliminate the threat of fire in high-tech lithium batteries.

Still, there is also the cost. The cars themselves are pricey compared to their internal-combustion engine cousins, and gas prices have fallen, lessening the incentive to switch to an all-electric vehicle.

All told, electric passenger cars currently cost US$5,000 to US$6,000 more to their owners than an equivalent fossil fuel car over the vehicle’s lifetime, according to a new study by the Paris-based International Transport Forum.

“The current generation of electric cars represents a significant improvement over previous ones. Nonetheless, electric vehicles remain more expensive than their fossil-fueled equivalents and may need government assistance to trigger wide-spread uptake,” the study said.

However, the demand for electrics keeps rising, buyers are getting more choice and the technology is improving.

Ford has begun selling an electric model of its Focus. Honda is rolling out an electric version of the Fit later this month, but only expects to sell 1,100 over the next two years. Spokesman Sage Marie said the company will go slow initially to make sure customers are satisfied with their new electric vehicles.

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