LEAF

Tesla's Model S invades dreams and soon showrooms

The Tesla Model S beckons to me from a poster tacked to the wall behind my computer terminal.

It's a sleek silver with custom rims that look like blades of a jet turbine. I can imagine popping the door, climbing in after work and blasting quietly onto the freeway listening to AC/DC's Highway to Hell. 

That's the thought anyway.

Daydream nation

Many motorheads are likely tuning to a similar daydream. Cool car, custom and the latest technology. Great name too. Tesla, after Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest electrical engineers of the modern era, responsible for developing the alternating current electrical supply system. He even demonstrated wireless energy transfer back in 1891 and inspired a pretty decent rock and roll band.

Suffice to say the dude is cool. And so is the car named for him. Although this vehicle's arrival has more to do with Tesla Motors Inc. Chairman Elon Musk, another bigwig in the innovation realm. In addition to his co-founding of Tesla, Musk also has been instrumental of the commercialization of space travel via his efforts on SpaceX and its Dragon spacecraft, which returned successfully from a trip to the International Space Station.

Summer is the S season

The Model S is due in showrooms June 22, but the first cars will likely go to reservation holders as the manufacturer slowly rolls out each completed vehicle from assembly lines at the Fremont, Calif. plant. In an 8-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Musk writes that reservations for the Model S topped 10,000 soon after first quarter 2012.

"We plan to continue making customer deliveries on a slow, methodical ramp, and remain confident in our target of 5,000 vehicle deliveries by year end," he says.

Anticipation is building. "Eagerly waiting for delivery in LA 'Lower Alabama,' writes jlswit on a post by George Blankenship, Tesla vice president of sales, on the company website. There are many more such fan responses.

Range is key

The car sounds like a major step ahead of the competition. In addition to Chevy's Volt and Nissan's Leaf, Ford's come out with an electric Focus, trumpeting "You'll never need a drop of gas or an oil change." Mitsubishi has its odd looking MiEV, which according to the manufacturer is the "greenest vehicle of 2012." And there are the independents: Coda, Fisker and others.

The base price of the Model S is $49,900. But the statistic that catches my eye is the range. Darren Quick of gizmag.com posted a chart provided by the company that shows a potential distance of 450 miles on a single charge. Of course the driver would have to limit speed to about 25 mph, but it's possible.

Quick says the company plans to issue a prize to the first customer who logs more than 400 miles on a charge. More likely drivers will see their range between 250 and 350 miles, he says.

That range beats the pants off other electrics and makes the car more likely to win converts from the internal-combustion crowd.

Turning dreams into reality

And it makes me want one. This kind of interest in a car reminds me of my dream back in high school. Then I was deep into 1950s retro and Hot Rod magazine.

I daydreamed of a 1957, or 1956 (I wasn't too proud), Chevy Nomad. Black. In fact, I just spotted one on Blackstone Avenue in Fresno, Calif. A Bel-Air version in mint condition. It looked awesome but didn't quite have the same appeal to my present-day self. I ended up in high school (class of '79) with a $300 1963 Ford Galaxie. Four-door land yacht. Still, I loved the stupid thing.

The Model S has a taste of the exotic. In fact, it looks far more high-end than its price would indicate.

I recently stumbled across a peek at an Austin Martin DBS concept car that shared a look similar to the Model S's sweeping lines and tough, eat-you-for-dinner grill and front end. Not bad. To me the DB series will always be one of the coolest cars ever.

So if my fortunes change and I'm following this particular daydream to reality, you can expect to see me picking out a color and adding custom features to my own Model S. Yeah, right.

Coda ships first car; electric vehicle news accelerates

Coda is shipping its small electric cars to customers.

Mercedes, meanwhile, has confirmed that it will begin building an electric version of its SLS super car .

And recharging stations are popping up. Oregon's got a 160-mile section of Interstate 5 covered with eight recharging stations, enabling electric-car drivers to conquer range anxiety. Even in California's sunny and fossil-fuel dominated San Joaquin Valley, such docking stations may be on their way.

"Change is coming," writes John Voelcker, senior editor of Green Car Reports, in a piece about the declining price of electric car batteries that touched on EV trends. He advises taking the long view of the industry and forecasts a price decline in batteries of about 7 percent a year.

Developments continue

Activity in the electric car sector -- despite the lackluster sales of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf in recent months -- has been nothing short of frenetic. Automakers and parts and component manufacturers just keep announcing developments, far beyond the prototype stage. And while Coda's deliveries are about a year and a half later than initially promised, the cars are on their way to a dealer network. Tesla's also planning to bring its Model S sedan to market in big numbers next year, and its Model X SUV is in the works.

Even the resurrected DeLorean Motor Co. is back with an electric version of its flagship gull-wing "Back to the Future" car.

Now there's even an option for the person of means. Say this average high-brow consumer has a little spare cash, maybe something north of $200,000, for a unique environmentally conscious ride. The Mercedes SLS E-Cell would be the perfect selection.

Indubitably.



Electric cars can perform

And it will be U.S. made. Brian Dodson of gizmag.com says the offering from Mercedes-AMG has been "confirmed for production in Detroit in January will be available in 2013."

Dodson says the E-Cell accelerates from 0 to 100 km/h in 4 seconds, just a hair shy of its gas-powered counterpart, which covers the same distance in 3.8 seconds. The e-version tops out at 155 mph, while the other can manage a whopping 197 mph.

"You will not believe the performance," says David Coulthard, former Formula One race car driver from Scotland and sometime TV commentator. That's him in the video.

Another sports car heavyweight, Porsche, has a monster of its own in development, the 918 Spyder. It boasts two electric engines, one for the front wheels, another for the back and an 8-cylinder engine. In all the hybrid offers up 770 horsepower, says Damon Lavrinc in jalopnik.com.
Smaller market larger

OK. So most people will be thinking smaller. Coda comes to mind. And the Tesla Model S does 0 to 60 mph (about the same as 100 kilometers) in 4.4 seconds.

The intent of Benicia, Calif.-based Coda Automotive appears to be the average, environmentally minded consumer who's not afraid of dealing with occasional range anxiety. The targeted consumer would see the car as a plus, a way to save gas on perhaps about 90 percent of his or her routine travel.

Ben Coxworth of gizmag.com says three buyers snapped up the Coda soon after its debut, two from the Los Angeles dealership and another in Northern California. He says the car reportedly averages 88 miles on a charge despite a maximum listed range of 125 miles.

Market for the Coda

The Coda has an understated and rather generic look, bypassing the otherworldly unique design of the Leaf and the custom and aggressive stance of the Volt. In a somewhat counter intuitive move not likely to attract a thrifty audience, the Coda has been priced at $44,900, higher than the Leaf at $35,200 and the Volt at $39,145.

"As an upstart automaker, Coda Automotive always faced an uphill fight against electric cars like the Nissan Leaf," says Chuck Squatriglia of wired.com's Autopia. "Slapping a $44,900 price tag on its forthcoming EV has made the road ahead that much steeper."

Federal tax incentives for electric vehicles shave up to $7,500 off the sales price. Residents of California can qualify for a $2,500 tax rebate through the state's Clean Vehicle Rebate Program.

EV forecast cloudy

The reign of the electric car remains somewhere in the future. Coda and struggling competitor Fisker, which also recently rolled out its first cars, don't appear likely to alter that forecast. Escalating gasoline prices enhance consumer interest, but the American public is notoriously fickle and resists change.

However, Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research projects that by 2017 "more than 1.5 million locations to charge vehicles will be available in the United States, with a total of nearly 7.7 million locations worldwide."

About a third will be home-charging units

Charging centers coming

Infrastructure to support electric cars is beginning to materialize. A $200,000 grant issued by the California Energy Commission to the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District will enable the regulatory agency to study the best locations for plug-in recharging stations and assist jurisdictions in crafting permitting processes. The Air District plans to set up a coordinating council to help promote the use of the cars in the politically and fiscally conservative region.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy has offered up a new grant program intended to take a bite out the diesel and natural gas big truck market. The agency, which has done quite a bit promoting the electrification of the highways in the past several years, has made up to $10 million available to proposals that "demonstrate and deploy electric transportation technologies for cargo vehicles, such as trucks and forklifts."

The Energy Department's intention is to help reduce the nation's reliance on gasoline and diesel and diversify the nation's energy portfolio. Money would go to "demonstrate cost-effective zero emission cargo transport systems and collect detailed performance and cost data to analyze the benefits and viability of this approach to freight transportation."

Getting electric power into cargo transportation is the goal. The move, if successful, would significantly cut consumption of fossil fuels and slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Integration takes coordination

The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions is working a different angle with similar intent. The nonprofit succeeds the Pew Center for Global Climate Change and generates analysis and seeks to find solutions to avert global warming.

The center, in the report "An Action Plan to Integrate Plug-in Electric Vehicles with the U.S. Electrical Grid," says electric cars could become an important part of the U.S. market if given "a fair chance to compete with conventional vehicles."

It proposes standardizing regulations as they relate to the electrical grid. These are multi-tiered involving everything from commercial recharging stations, home chargers and the finance of such infrastructure to protecting the grid, rate structures and encouraging beefing up the system for demand.

Jacking the grid

Between a major new source of energy consumption (electric cars) and power generation (solar, wind and other renewables), utilities will have a heck of a time sorting it all out while providing a steady stream of consumeable current over power lines. Analysts expect changes at many levels with smart grid technology emerging as an important element to maintaining system integrity.

This includes integrating smart meters, meter networking and communication, in-home energy management, demand response, meter data management, other smart grid software and services and related gear into an outdated and often overtaxed grid, according to Jeff St. John of greentechmedia.com.

"The smart grid market continues to move ... to a wide swath of new, advanced applications ranging from consumer behavior analytics, to next-gen control and protection, to greentech integration and grid optimization," St. John writes.

How all this turns out is anybody's guess. We were talking with our friends at the Air District about the subject, and the conclusion is that we probably won't be seeing noticeable change, at least in the San Joaquin Valley, any time soon.

Other stories of interest:
The DeLorean is back and this time it's electric
Electric car sales ramp up, is change coming?
Stockton electric truck company scores big with UPS

Electric car sales ramp up; is change coming?

Electric automobile sales have yet to disrupt the dominance of internal combustion.

Electrics at this point would appear bound for a niche market, hardly living up to President Obama's pledge to encourage their proliferation to about 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015.

That prospect had gop.com's research division saying: "Another day, another broken promise from President Obama."

Fisker flounders

And Fisker, the manufacturer of the much-ballyhooed Karma and recipient of a half billion-dollar U.S. Department of Energy loan, has announced layoffs after issuing recalls in prior weeks of its more than 200 cars sold. John Voelcker of greencarreports.com says Fisker and fellow electric car builder Tesla are vulnerable to the same type of criticism surrounding failed photovoltaic panel manufacturer Solyndra, which also was on the DOE's loan llist.

None of that taint appears to have landed on Tesla, which is coming off a raft of positive press with increased sales, a deal with Daimler for an electric Mercedes-Benz and the debut of its electric SUV, the "Falcon Wing" Model X. If this latest round of news is any indication, the appetite for electric cars may prove more robust as consumer options and infrastructure to keep the cars charged increase.

Tesla shines

The sector remains unproved. Tesla, despite its evolution, continues to lose money. But revenue is increasing. Chairman Elon Musk says in the company's 8K report to shareholders that "net losses will continue as planned until we reach volume sales of Model S in 2013."

The Model S is a high-end family sedan built in Tesla's Fremont, Calif. factory. The price is expected to be somewhere north of $60,000. Musk says about 8,000 orders for the car have been placed so far. It accelerates from 0-60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, which is faster than my friend Al's built-up 1977 Trans Am.

The Model X is a media darling, getting coverage all over the Web and in the automotive press. Huffingtonpost.com's Sharon Silke Carty says it "has struck a chord with wealthy, environmentally conscious customers" who snapped up about 500 reservations after its recent debut.

Production is expected to begin in late 2013 with customer deliveries starting in early 2014, Musk says. Volume is targeted at 10,000 to 15,000 units per year.

EV sales lackluster

EV sales currently are dominated by General Motors and Nissan. The Volt closed out 2011 with a minor sales flurry. It sold 7,671 units for the year, with more than 1,500 of those in December, according to figures compiled by Martin LaMonica of cnet.com.

Nissan sold 9,674 units of its all-electric Leaf, with 954 of those in the final month of 2011, according to goodcarbadcar.net.

Other nameplates sold fewer cars.

Electrics find a place

But battery power is making headway on the highway. At least in California, the cars have become more commonplace. The other morning as rain pelted me in the health club parking lot, a Leaf quietly rolled past. The thing moved like an oddly shaped ninja. And all lit up in the darkness, it even looked graceful.

Soundless electrics certainly would reduce road noise, until a Harley with straight pipes pulls up alongside.

Gas prices make a difference

Gas prices, which could push $5 per gallon this summer, may influence some buyers. Oil-price.net reports oil per barrel prices above $100 for West Texas Intermediate and its one-year forecast price climbing $20. That's not a big deal. Crude prices have hovered around the centennial mark for a couple years now.

But it's the rapid rise nationally in gas prices in the first months of the year that has some worried about what the summer holds. Summer is usually when more people are on the road and prices increase at the pump.

Ronald D. White of the LA Times quotes analyst Brian L. Milne as saying the early increase may point to higher prices later in the year. "There's a chance that the U.S. average tops $4 a gallon by June, with some parts of the country approaching $5 a gallon," Milne says.

Nothing inspires change like price increases. Of course, electric cars remain very expensive.

Hydro Gene makes a prediction

Automotive enthusiast and hydrogen energy activist Gene Johnson says as long as the price point for electric cars sits so far above the average consumer's means, the segment will remain somewhat exclusive. Johnson, a big clean energy proponent in California's San Joaquin Valley, offers a better method -- retrofits.

He and some friends took a Toyota RAV4, removed its gas-burning stock engine and replaced it with an electric drive train. They sold it on eBay for more than $20,000, easily covering the retrofit cost with a tidy profit.

He says that's the way to go. Johnson predicts more companies will enter the conversion business. He even goes so far as saying Fresno would be a great place to start.

Solar shoulders in

At some point, on-board solar may play a role in recharging electric cars.

The solar-powered SolarWorld GT started the U.S. leg of its round-the-world trek at the University of California, Santa Barbara and plans to drive across the country, according to gizmag.com. The car, a collaboration between solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld, and Bochum University of Applied Sciences in Germany, is hardly a production vehicle.

But its sojourn may be the start of something. The car and its team are to head to Florida, where the GT will be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to continue driving across Europe, Asia and Africa and back to Darwin, Australia. Assuming the car returns, "it will set the Guinness Record for the longest distance covered by a solar car -- approximately 34,000 kilometers, or 21,080 miles," Ben Coxworth writes.

Such accomplishments are but interesting footnotes. However, should solar panels some day be incorporated cheaply into a car's surface and still be efficient enough to provide a continuous charge, there's no stopping the electric car.

We'll see.

Photo: SolarWorld GT race team.

US consumers still skeptical of green cars

Consumers in the United Kingdom like cars that get great mileage.

In fact, according to a recent study by Motoring.co.uk, Toyota Prius sales in Great Britain are up 51.5 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and Nissan's Leaf looks like another big hit.

Meanwhile, across the pond, U.S. consumers are less excited by green automobiles, a category that includes hybrids and electric. Sure, small car sales are up and Chevy's done great business with its revamped automotive lineup that includes the electric/gas Volt.

But automotive consultant JD Power and Associates in its inaugural 2011 U.S. Green Automotive Study says, "Automakers will be fighting over the relatively few consumers who are willing to drive green."

It could be the price of fuel. Petroprices.com reported an average UK cost to the equivalent of about $8.33 per gallon. That compares with a California average of about $4.12 as of May 23, according to AAA.

Big motivator. Americans are used to towing, hauling and packing in the number of passengers we want. Need help with that horse trailer? How about grabbing a tow bar and dragging that piece of junk Oldsmobile to the nonprofit junk car fundraiser?

Sure, we say. No problem. That's what that 460-cubic-inch monster in the pickup out back is for. Step on the gas pedal and watch the little red needle on the fuel gauge drop. It's a matter of pride with a lot of us.

Westlake Village, Calif.-based JD Power says that cultural phenomenon may stick with us awhile. I certainly haven't seen a decrease in the number of massive SUVs on the road. I find it reassuring to be sandwiched between a couple of them in a parking lot. Backing-out roulette is always an invigorating experience.

The study says consumers cite purchase price as a stumbling block to get into the new line of green cars. Remember, this is for electric and hybrid automobiles.

Other problems mentioned by consumers were driving range, or lack of it (a Leaf, according to a source, gets about 84 miles to a charge), increased maintenance costs and performance. The study says consumers are more likely to "switch into a more fuel-efficient vehicle powered by a traditional internal combustion engine than an alternative powertrain vehicle."

Yet, I've written about how Honda has positioned its hybrid Insight base price very close to that of the Civic. The statistics for performance aren't much different, although, and I've mentioned this before, my wife said there was no way anybody would catch her behind the wheel of "that thing," as she referred to the Insight. She purchased a Civic.

Peggy's issue was more cosmetic. She didn't care for the design, but like other consumers in the JD Power study she also worried about battery replacement costs.

My family tends to keep our cars and drive them a lot. Our daughter sold the 1986 Accord LX at 360,000 miles and it was still going somewhat strong. My 1981 Toyota pickup was cut up for scrap at about 260,000 miles but by that time was so tired and rotted out rust-wise that it had few usable parts.

And I'm still bound and determined to keep my 1974 Super Beetle functioning.

Drivers in the UK are a bit more adventurous, and perhaps a bit more insightful. Chris Green, co-founder and sales director of Motoring.co.uk, said increased demand can be traced to increased reliability and performance.

"In the future, we will see more and more people opting for cars that are cheap to maintain rather than splashing out on models to impress the neighbours," Green said in a statement. He estimated demand will increase in the island nation dramatically over the next 18 months.

And in this country, expectations are that consumers will buy into the alternative concept. Nissan has said it will install 30 solar-assisted charging stations at its Smyrna Vehicle Assembly Plant in Franklin, Tenn.

And they will have a lot to choose from. JD Power says that by the end of 2016, it expects manufacturers to offer 159 hybrid and electric vehicle models in the U.S. market. In 2009, there were 31.

Photo: Along the Oodnadatta Track, Australia, by mancity.

Top 7 earth friendly cars, plus a Tesla

I saw my first Tesla.

Up close, and personal. My first impression: This car is teeny. Would I be able to fold in my 6-foot 2-inch frame? Heck yes!

Tesla Roadster
With 3.7 seconds to 60 mph, this baby would fly. The possibility of me expanding my horizons with speeding tickets would increase exponentially if I were allowed access.

The Tesla Roadster was one of the key attractions at Fresno Earth Day celebration at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Fresno. Accompanying the little black electric powered ball of fury were a Nissan Leaf, a Chevy Volt, a solar-powered Toyota Prius, a hybrid Honda Insight and several other vehicles of interest.

The festivities included other attractions. Those included 75 participants for a crowd-pleasing variety that included live music, food, workshops, tours, exhibits, free e-waste recycling, solar cooking & bio-fuel making demonstrations, xeriscaping and more. The church itself is worth checking out as it is LEED certified and makes use of energy efficient materials, low-flow plumbing and landscaping that needs very little water.

But I was there to see the cars. For me, the experience proved valuable even if it was self-indulgent. My wife, Peggy, tagged along for the experience. I promised her it would be brief and that I would avoid engaging in any long-winded discussions about cars.

I succeeded. We left after about 20 minutes and still got a chance to look at the solar oven display. Very cool concept. Great for reducing deforestation in third world countries.

Zap Car
But the wheeled objects really captured my interest. There was a Zap car, one of the three-wheeled creations of the Santa Rosa-based manufacturer of electric vehicles that until recently served as a niche product. Zap recently purchased controlling interest in Chinese automaker Zhejiang Jonway Automobile Co. Ltd. and hopes to tap into the growing Chinese market with a new lineup of vehicles. I suspect it's a company to watch.

Peggy snapped several pictures of the Zap mobile, figuring it would be a favorite of her students. She teaches ninth-grade English at rural Riverdale High School (which by the way has its own solar installation.)

Nissan Leaf
I checked out the Nissan Leaf. The owner explained details of power consumption and some of the variables for getting the most miles out of a charge. One thing I noticed about the rig was that it looked a lot beefier in person. The photos of the Leaf online make it look dainty somehow.

Up close, the Leaf looks quite solid. The aluminum wheels are rather large and sporty and the interior is spacious and not too Jetsons. Here's a shout-out to Phil T, who's been blogging about his experiences as a SoCal Leaf owner for the past several months. "Phil, you're right. Photos don't do the car justice."

Smart Car
We also got to get up close and personal with Smart car. I've been repulsed by the things since I first saw one skittering down the freeway. All I can think of is the short wheel base and how the thing would spin like a top on ice.

But looking at it from a different angle gave me greater appreciation. Just the engineering of the car is amazing. All sorts of stuff crammed in without looking crammed. The engine fits in back like a Bug. (Obviously not in in a Beetle's league, but still interesting.)

There's an electric version of the rig available this year at dealerships across the country. Dubbed Smart Fortwo Electric, the tiny vehicle was anticipated by Daimler designers two decades to be powered by an electric drive train, according to officials. They apparently left room in the design so there appears no change in outward appearance in the two vehicles.

VW TDI
Two vehicles that stood out at the Earth Day event, at least to me, were a couple of Volkswagen Jetta TDI series, one older and another brand new. TDI, for turbo direct injection diesel, is the designation VW bestowed upon its latest generation of diesel vehicles. The older Jetta was tuned to run on biodiesel, while the new one sported VW's latest "clean diesel" technology. Mileage in the latter is listed at 34 mpg combined city/highway.

Fred Voglmaier, who writes on tdiclub.com, says demand for the diesel rigs is high. Could be.

Prius
The Prius owner at the Earth Day event gave a serious rundown on what kind of mileage he gets under multiple conditions. The data was fascinating and he can get up to 56 mpg under certain conditions. The model even was equipped with a solar panel in the glass roof.

Toyota is set to introduce its Prius PHV, for plug-in hybrid, next year. Here's how Steve Siler of caranddriver.com described the differences with the conventional hybrid: "The Prius PHV is essentially just a Prius whose nickel-metal hydride battery pack has been swapped for a far pricier, far heavier, and far more potent lithium-ion pack."

Range is supposed to be far less than the Volt or Leaf.

Volt
The Chevy Volt looked the most conventional of the electric cars at the Unitarian church that day. In fact, it looked rather large, hardly a compact car. Interior space was ample, and the design, inside and out, was very un-Chevy. By that, I mean Chevy's had a reputation for short-shrifting its cars on style. The SUVs look cool. The cars, on the other hand, and I personally believe since the Camaro was redesigned in the 1970s, just looked lame.

The Volt, and the redesigned Camaro, return Chevy to a contender among car buyers.

Biodiesel Mercedes
There was also a beat up old Mercedes at the show that looked as if the owner brewed the biodiesel in the trunk. It's an original, late 70s or early 80s vintage. Cool but definitely somebody else's project.

Honda Insight
The Honda Insight is a great vehicle and reasonably priced. Great entry for the hybrid/electric market. My wife despises the design as she does that of the Prius.

All in all great show. I saw the Tesla driving around Fresno. I pointed it out to some young people at the athletic club, but they just stared blankly until I said, "0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds."

Electric vehicles are coming: Recharge with 5 choices

The MiEV is coming to town.

Translation: Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc. is offering up its Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle (amazing name, I know) for pre-order starting April 22, Earth Day.

This vehicle, like Nissan's Leaf, is all electric all the time. The only other full-on electric car commercially available is the Tesla Roadster, which will set you back about $100,000. Tesla's sleek Model S sedan, which also boasts a 300 mile charge life and claims zero to 60 in 5.6 seconds, costs about half that and comes out next year.

The $41,000 Chevy Volt is also on the streets. One was spotted by my co-worker Sandy Nax recently at a Kingsburg auto show. The Volt also features a gas engine for backup. Its all-electric range is 40 miles, not quite half the $32,780 Leaf's 100-mile advertised distance.

But according to Washington Examiner reporter David Freddoso, the news isn't all that electrifying for Chevy. Freddoso writes in his blog in March that sales of the Volt in February were a "very modest 281," down from 326 in December. Read some of the comments on the post, and it appears to be an issue more of supply than demand. One commenter says his Volt won't be delivered until late April or May.

After several delays, Fisker appears on track to begin delivering its Karma sedan in June or July, reports Products & Tech News. The blog says "Fisker’s Roger Ormisher also points out that the company did begin 'limited series production' at the end of March as planned, and he says the company is 'ramping up slowly to ensure absolute quality.'" The all-electric luxury car will cost about $100,000.

Comparatively, the entry-level 2012 Mitsubishi i will set buyers back a measly $27,990. Add in the federal tax credit and the price drops to $20,490, "a substantial savings ... when compared to its mass-produced production EV competition," the company says in a statement.

For a couple thousand more, buyers can get the SE package with "360-watt, eight speaker sound system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, upgraded seating material with silver interior accents, unique two-tone interior and door panels, 15-inch alloy wheels and fog lamps." Another upgrade includes a quick-charge port for 80 percent recharge in 30 minutes and other fun stuff.

The MiEV will be on display at Earth Day San Francisco 2011 on April 23 in the Civic Center Plaza. For more information, go to http://www.earthdaysf.com/.

Mitsubishi didn't offer a driving range for the MiEV on its press release, but Michael Boxwell of thechargingpoint.com says the automaker claims a range of 92 miles. He said while testing the car, he was able to achieve a range of 92.7 miles in the city. "However, at higher speeds range does drop off considerably," Boxwell says. "On a trip down the motorway my range dropped to a little over 50 miles, while cross-country motoring gave me a range of 64.4 miles."

Blogger Phil T has been testing the limits of his newly purchased Nissan Leaf on Southern California roads and had this to say of its range: "I measured 86.5 miles of range on a day when I decided to try to run the car out of power to see what the range would be. I drove some of the miles gently and others aggressively, with no freeway miles. I know that the car is capable of more range, and I may try it again with a full 'tank' of careful driving."

I'll be following the exploits of Phil T, who just recently picked up his Leaf in Costa Mesa. I mentioned to him my fear of going all electric. (I have considered converting my black custom 1974 Super Beetle.) Phil says not to worry: "No point in being afraid, Mike. After all, 'faint heart never won fair maiden,' as they say."

In my defense, I will say I won the fair maiden 20 years ago.

Phil says it's just a matter of factoring in conditions and whether a driver's daily trips fit the range of an electric vehicle. "That and you'd need a plan for longer trips," he says.

So, if you've taken the plunge, I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Electric cars roll into showrooms and find believers

Blogger Phil T picked up his Nissan Leaf on March 31 and has been posting about his experiences ever since.

His reviews?

"We're very pleased with it," he writes. "The LEAF drives like a real car, accelerating and stopping quickly."

Phil T's experiences are being repeated across the country as others take the electric car plunge and embrace a technology with a decidedly short consumer track record. Pioneers like Phil T, who recounts in detail all his thoughts and experiences on drivingelectric.blogspot.com, blaze the trail for others.

Just how many will follow is one of the big questions on the minds of many. (Well, mine at least). For instance, what about that limited range issue? Will the Chevy Volt, which has a much shorter all-electric capability than the 100-mile Leaf, be the bigger seller?

Will electric vehicles remain a niche market limited to true believers or users whose driving requirements benefit from a zero-emissions ride?

Answers to these questions and many more will materialize over the next year or so. In the meantime, developments in the sector are coming so fast and furious that they're hard to keep up with. I'll recount about a half dozen in this post.

For instance, Google's gotten into the game, promising to map EV recharging stations.

Google has teamed with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and others in the venture, establishing a nationwide online network via GPS. Projects under way via the Clean Cities Program "include the deployment of electric vehicles and chargers" and other technologies like biodiesel and natural gas, U.S. Department of Energy officials said.

Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research just released a report acknowledging the entry of the electric automobile and saying its biggest impact may be preparing the market for the electric scooter and motorcycle. Pike Senior analyst Dave Hurst and President Clint Wheelock write that the market, currently suffering from low demand, is poised for growth in North America and Europe, especially in cities where the relative silence of the electric two-wheelers enables residents greater access and less irritation.

But Asia's the big buyer with projected sales of 19.6 million e-scooters and 2.9 million e-motorcycles by 2017, Hurst and Wheelock write. North America’s relatively puny but significant e-scooter and e-motorcycle markets are expected to grow to 41,146 e-scooters and 27,971 e-motorcycles in the same period.

Another indication that we aren't in Dorothy's Kansas anymore comes from General Motors, which released a statement saying it received 135 clean-energy patents -- more in 2010 than any other organization, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index of U.S. patents. Patents include an ultra-efficient hybrid electric vehicle transmission, seamless start-stop fuel control system and a system to preheat the EV battery, improving range.

"GM has clearly put forth a lot of effort in a range of clean-energy technologies," said Victor Cardona, co-chair of the Cleantech Group at Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti, publisher of the index, in the statement.

Across the pond, Hertz Corp. has teamed with Mitsubishi Motors in the United Kingdom to roll out Mitsubishi's electric i-MiEV tiny city car as part of its rental fleet. Lance Bradley, Mitsubishi's UK managing director, underlined the status of the car to the Japanese manufacturer. "The i-MiEV is a very important vehicle for us, making a statement to the global car industry," he said in a press release.

Plymouth, Mich.-based AVL, a manufacturer of automotive power trains, recently announced its sponsorship of EcoCAR 2: Plugging into the Future, a collegiate engineering competition. AVL will provide resources and guidance, "offering hands-on experience to automotive engineers of the future, advancing the electrification of vehicles," officials said.

EcoCAR 2 was established by DOE and GM and is meant to train aspiring engineers and develop clean technologies through competition. The 16 university teams were selected when the competition started.

If the level of corporate firepower is any indication, electric vehicles are here to stay. How they will integrate into the current mix and whether alternative fuel like isobutanol, biodiesel, hydrogen or compressed natural gas will play a significant role is an question for the futurists.

In the meantime, people like Phil T will be telling the rest of us how it's done. His real-world insights provide invaluable information to newbies. For instance, in a recent post, the Leaf owner writes that the farthest he's driven in a day is 68 miles. He also says range can be variable.

"On the most surprisingly short range day, the range display showed 71 miles in the morning. But after an 8 mile trip taking the family out to lunch and a quick 20 mile freeway drive with air conditioning, the range display only showed 21 miles," he says. "That's a reduction of 50 miles of displayed range after driving only 28 miles."

Good to know.

Photo: Mitsubishi's electric MiEV in London.

High electric rates could sink the Volt

That electric car may look good in theory, but in California it could cost more than feeding a big block Chevy.

That's the implication of a study released this week by Purdue University economist Wally Tyner, the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics. And it comes on the heels of the release in the state of Nissan's all-electric Leaf and the Chevy Volt, which can go 35 to 40 miles on a charge before the gas engine fires up.

Tyner said California's tiered electricity pricing system is the culprit. The rates, which were created to reduce energy consumption and thus greenhouse gas emissions, mean consumers who crank up their demand beyond a certain point get booted into the highest bracket and pay more.

"Almost everyone in California reaches the third pricing tier each month," Tyner said in a Purdue news release. "If they add a plug-in hybrid, they are charged the highest rate."

Adding a plug-in hybrid would increase the average use of electricity nearly 60 percent per household, according to the study, which was published in the online version of the journal Energy Policy. In California, most of that increase would be charged at the highest rate.

And Californians, according to Tyner, "pay some of the highest electricity rates -- an average of 14.42 cents per kilowatt hour, which is about 35 percent higher than the national average."

Tyner said states like Indiana, which charges a flat rate of about 8 cents per kilowatt hour, would be more economical to run an electric car.

Of course, there are a lot of variables. California could issue sweeping changes to utilities' pricing system. And gas prices, which have been rumored to reach as high as $5 per gallon this summer, could make those charging rates appear less lethal.

The price per barrel continues to hover in the $90 per barrel range, closing at $91.67 on Friday, according to oil-price.net. The L.A. Times said: "Oil prices would need to rise to between $171 and $254 per barrel to offset the price premium on the Volt, for both the car itself and the electricity needed to charge it."

Tyner said rates would have to drop for plug-in hybrids to compete. "People who view the Volt as green will pay $10,000 more over the lifetime of the car because it's green," he said. "Most consumers will look at the numbers and won't pay that."

Electric cars, Portugal and grandsons

As predicted, electric cars have debuted on streets across the globe.

I've been looking to make my first personal sighting of an electric car, but I've seen nothing so far by a major manufacturer despite a quick trip to see my latest grandkid in the eco-friendly Seattle/Puget Sound area.

The first delivery in the United States popped up earlier this month in California going to Olivier Chalouhi of Redwood City, reported John Voelcker, senior editor of greencarreports.com. It was a black 2011 Nissan Leaf SL from a dealership in Petaluma.

Now Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates has received one of 10 Leafs delivered to his government, the first, according to officials, in Europe. The Nissan electric procurement is meant to publicize Portugal's MOBI.E Program, which offers a charging network for the vehicles and is working with other automobile manufacturers to develop a system that will promote greater use of the cars.

Portugal's Prime Minister José Socrates is one of 10 recipients and will reportedly now travel exclusively by Electric Car for his official travels around Lisbon.

Socrates said he's proud of the distinction and called his fledgling charging network "a leading example to the world of how to roll out electric cars." He said in a statement that "Portugal is the first country in the world to have a nation-wide smart grid for electric vehicles."

Portugal gives the rest of us at least two things in the EV roll out to watch. The first is whether consumers will accept the Portuguese government's efforts to provide recharging stations. And the second is whether electric cars can overcome concerns and prejudices of multiple generations used to the freedom and security of internal combustion.

Portugal's not taking chances by sweetening the pot. Private customers buying one of the first 5,000 electric cars will be entitled to a 5,000-euro incentive and don't have to pay registration or a "single circulation" tax. Another 1,500 euro rebate is available to those who replace cars ready to croak.

Americans have incentives as well, but generally electric cars come with a premium. I noted in a past post how Honda was working to get its Insight hybrid priced for the masses to boost sales, pushing the base cost to about $18,200.

But electrics have a way to go with a cost of between $30,000 and $40,000. I went online over the holidays looking at the VW TDI Golf, which I priced well appointed for about $23,600. The diesel gets phenomenal mileage (reportedly 42 mpg highway) and is another option for the eco-minded.

So there's stiff competition. Maybe by the time I travel again to Bellingham, Wash. to see little Cyrus in six months, we'll see a Leaf or Volt or something else electric cruising the tree-studded streets.

I did see a glorified street legal golf cart-looking rig in Seattle's U District on Thursday. I wonder what the automotive landscape will look like when Cyrus turns 5?

Photo: Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates and his Leaf.

Electric cars: Drum solo for Coda

Tis the season of the electric car.

On the radio, I hear commercials for the Chevy Volt: "At a car dealer near you soon." The Nissan Leaf won best in class for mileage from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And now the latest: Coda inks deal with Hertz.

Coda still reminds me of the last Zep album and that ripping John Bonham solo, Bonzo's Montreau. But I digress. I must adapt my thinking.

Executives of Santa Monica, Calif.-based Coda are pumped by their news.

"The 100 percent electric CODA was designed to meet the needs of most Americans with dependable, all-season range, and fast, convenient charging," said Mark Jamieson, CFO & COO of Coda Automotive, in a statement. "With one of the world's largest rental car fleets, Hertz is uniquely positioned to catalyze the adoption of all-electric vehicles and infrastructure supporting electric mobility."

That means a big boost for the electric car company that has yet to hit the market with its flagship sedan. If Hertz is cool with the car, others likely will be too.

Many people are like me. Rent a car, enjoy the experience, then buy one.

Coda officials said their sedan hits the market sometime next year. No specific date was given. Here's what they said about it: "The Coda is designed to meet the day-to-day needs of most Americans, featuring space for five passengers, a full-size trunk and a dependable 90-120 miles of range during any season."

They also said the sedan's battery system has "at least 40 percent more usable energy than any all-electric sedan on the market in 2011."

Take that Leaf. Actually, the Leaf offers about the same performance. It goes on sale in California next month.

And neither will make anything like the sound my well-carburated 1974 Bug makes, especially burning the tires on a rainy day.

And this is the best read post on this blog. Amazing. Wonder if it has to do with the Coda reference that has nothing to do with electric cars and everything to do with "The Song Remains the Same."

Electric car countdown begins

Is that an EV in the lane near you?

It may be should consumers get over their sticker shock over electric cars. A new survey by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says 44 percent of respondents would be "extremely or very interested" in buying a battery-powered unit.

With nearly three dozen plug-in electric models expected to be introduced by 2012, that's some serious potential market activity. Maybe it'll open up room at the pump.

Nissan's Leaf and Chevy's Volt are on their way. And Ford announced this week the first markets selected for its Ford Focus Electric's debut next year. They are: Atlanta, Austin and Houston, Texas; Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, New York, Orlando, Fla., Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; Raleigh Durham, N.C.; Richmond, Va., Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

"This is the first step in rolling out the Focus Electric," said Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas, in a statement. He said Ford would evaluate markets as demand grows and "the country continues to build up its electric vehicle infrastructure."

The news comes on the heels of an announcement by General Electric that it will convert about half of its global corporate fleet to electrics and will partner with fleet customers to deploy a total of 25,000 electric vehicles by 2015. Most of those will be Chevy Volt sedans.

“By electrifying our own fleet, we will accelerate the adoption curve, drive scale, and move electric vehicles from anticipation to action," said GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt in a statement.

In the same release, FedEx Chairman, President and CEO Fred Smith said GE's move helps ramp up production and lower prices of electric vehicles, bringing elevated visibility and acceptability to the public at large. FedEx is also incorporating electric trucks and alternative energy vehicles into its fleet.

It means the quiet vehicles will be increasingly common.

Pike Research said its survey "found that, based on Americans’ driving and commute patterns, PEVs should be a strong fit for a large number of consumers." In fact, 81 percent of respondents said better fuel efficiency would be an important factor when purchasing their next vehicle.

However, Pike officials found some drawbacks. They said consumers may have a difficult time justifying the increased cost of purchasing an electric vehicle even when they pay nothing for gasoline. The savings at the pump could take many, many months. Unless, of course, you replaced the aging Bentley with a Leaf.

Photo: Ford Focus chassis.

Top 5 electric cars go head to head

Should the average consumer buy into this electric car craze?

I don't know. Really. I believe in clean energy, but I'm sold on gasoline (even though at 14 I blew myself up in Fairbanks trying to start a pile of debris on fire with my 5-gallon container of chainsaw fuel. But that's another Human Torch type story.)

Gas has that hard-acceleration, immediate-return-on horsepower, lust-for-life feeling.

But give me $101,500 or $9,900 for a deposit and $1,658 a month for a lease and maybe I'll change my mind. That's the price for a Tesla Roadster. At 3.7 seconds from 0 to 60 mph and a range of 245 miles, it's pretty close to perfect.

I pause here on a mental trip in that imaginary Roadster -- black, by the way -- down Highway 99 to Bakersfield. Make that past Bakersfield and up the Grapevine to Vallejo and Magic Mountain, stomping the guts of BMWs and Mercedes that attempt to be fast. Ah ...

For purposes of this post, I have eliminated hybrids. No Toyota Prius or Camry. Skip the Honda Insight and Ford Escape. Electric only. Nor have I included lead-acid or lithium battery conversions.

And at this point, we only have Tesla on the road with a production vehicle. Actually, ZAP has to be tossed into the mix as well. The Santa Rosa-based company manufactures a line of small transporters. In July, the company inked a deal in which ZAP will acquire 51 percent of Chinese automaker Zhejiang Jonway Automobile Co. Ltd. for $29 million "as part of a strategy to capitalize on the growing automotive and electric vehicle market in China."

This list includes models expected to be available soon. So here goes.
  1. Tesla: Hands down. It's fast, cool looking and I could truly blow the doors off my friend Al's TA in OK City. He likes to race that hopped up big block 1977 Pontiac on the track.
  2. Chevy Volt. Very practical. It's versatile and not bad looking. The price is $41,000 and the range id 40 miles. However, it is supplemented by a gasoline-powered generator that allows it to go another 340 miles. Due out this fall.
  3. Nissan LEAF. Not bad. Sort of looks like an early generation Prius with a custom back end. The price tag for the SV package was listed as $32,780, while the SL package was $33,720. The SV includes a photovoltaic spoiler, rearview monitor and universal transceiver. Range is 100 miles. Due in California in December.
  4. Coda. Cool name. Last Led Zep album comes to mind. But unproven company in the United States. I was impressed with the website which calculated an annual expense comparison of my 2000 VW Passat and a Coda. Passat: $725, Coda: $124. Coda's sticker price is not listed on its site but it's expected to be in the low to mid $30,000 range.
  5. Sigma. ElectricCars.com lists Sigma/Montelle kit cars as a viable option. Manufactured by EV Concepts, it goes from 0 to 60 in 6 seconds and has a top speed of 100-120 mph. Price for two-wheel-drive models start at $23,000, and all-wheel-drive models start at $55,000.
There's also Ford, which is coming out with a stylish electric version of its Focus sometime next year and will follow with a line of electric vehicles, says dailytech.com. Range for the Focus will be about 100 miles. And Audi, Mercedes and others are reportedly in R&D.

Fisker Automotive Inc. of Irvine is also coming out with a car, but it's going to be a hybrid.

Disclosure. I've not test driven any of these cars. For that I'd have to defer to Katie Fehrenbacher of Earth2Tech.com, who can be seen in video piloting some of them.

The viability of going electric appears more likely by the month. But who knows. A friend of mine who's worked most of his life in the oil patch says, "Bah!" to most of this talk. His prediction: There's just too much oil and natural gas in reserve, counting shale and oil sands.

Photo: Sigma by EV Concepts.