Electrics spark interest at L.A. Auto Show

Zimmerman is a Times staff writer.

The future -- or at least a future -- may finally be in sight for the electric car.

Nissan-Renault Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn announced plans at the L.A. Auto Show on Wednesday to begin selling a competitively priced electric car in Oregon in 2010. The vehicle would go "mass market" by 2012, Ghosn vowed.

After years of false starts, the bold pronouncement was the clearest sign yet that electric cars may soon go beyond golf carts and $100,000 eco-status symbols. And there is more evidence of the trend on display at the Los Angeles Convention Center, including an electric version of BMW's popular Mini and a trio of electric vehicles from Chrysler.

But don't put on those shades just yet. Electric vehicles still have high hurdles to overcome, especially in terms of range and functionality.

"There's nothing I've seen here that points to a vehicle with a range of 250 miles before a lengthy charge is required," said Jack Nerad, market analyst with auto data tracker Kelley Blue Book. "And I think that's what you need before you can have widespread consumer acceptance."

Nissan acknowledges that the 100-mile range of its as-yet unnamed and unseen electric car could be a tough sell.

"It is a marketing challenge, certainly," said Mark Perry, director of product planning and advanced technology strategy for Nissan North America.

Then there are the infrastructure questions. Will apartment buildings and parking structures be built or retrofitted with electrical hookups? Will governments install quick charging in enough places to reduce "range anxiety"? And who will pay for the power?

But some carmakers and environmentalists are convinced that this year's gasoline price shock has made it feasible for two-car families to start thinking about owning a conventional gasoline-powered car to get them to places like Las Vegas and back and an electric vehicle for commuting and running weekend errands.

"If you live in West Hollywood and work in Culver City, an electric vehicle would be a great vehicle for you," said Spencer Quong, a vehicles expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In Oregon, Nissan plans first to place the electric cars in fleets operated by governments, utilities and local corporations. The car could be in dealerships by the end of 2010 or early 2011, Perry said.

Details are scant, but Perry said the car would seat four to five people and would have a trunk. As for speed, "you're more than able to get a speeding ticket," he said.

The cost would be comparable to that of a similarly sized and equipped gasoline-powered car, which could be well below that of the hotly anticipated Chevy Volt (expected to cost close to $40,000).

Nissan said that although consumers would buy the electric car, they would lease the battery. That would allow for battery upgrades as the technology evolves and ensure proper disposal of the units, which contain toxic substances. Ghosn said leasing a battery and paying for the electricity to charge it each month would cost about the same as a month's worth of gasoline.

While Nissan was talking up its plans for an unseen car, BMW was showing off its 156-mile range Mini-E, the electric version of its popular Mini Cooper. In a year when auto sales are plummeting, Mini sales are up 30%, BMW said.

The German automaker plans to lease 500 of the cars for one year to drivers in Los Angeles and New York. The price: $850 a month, a hefty premium over a gasoline-powered Mini. Prospective lessees can sign up at the Mini website.

BMW executives said the idea was to get real-world experience with the car before putting it in dealer showrooms.

Among the other electric offerings -- either as concepts or planned vehicles -- on display at the auto show are the iMiEV from Mitsubishi and, from Chrysler, electric versions of a Jeep Wrangler and Town and Country minivan, plus a Dodge sports car based on a Lotus.

Other automakers are laying the groundwork for electric cars. On Wednesday, Hyundai Motor Co. unveiled its first hybrid drivetrain, powered by a new kind of battery called lithium polymer, which the company says is lighter and more efficient than lithium-ion batteries. The system is expected to hit the market in late 2010 in the Sonata sedan.

John Krafcik, vice president of product development at Hyundai, said the battery was key to the South Korean carmaker's ultimately developing an electric car.

"A lot of people in the industry see pure electric vehicles as the endgame," Krafcik said. "The only question is how to get to that."

The auto show opens to the public Friday.

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martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ken Bensinger contributed to this report.

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