Electrics light up Paris auto show

Either Renault Executive Vice Chairman Patrick Pelata had too much champagne, or he knows something we don’t.

At the Paris Motor Show on Thursday, Pelata announced that the French carmaker would build a pure electric version of the Fluence, a mid-size sedan, and sell as many as 40,000 in 2011. “But we could double that” in the following year, Pelata said.

Such sales volumes could make Renault the world’s largest producer of electric road vehicles -- far outpacing, for instance, the production numbers proposed for General Motors Corp.'s much-vaunted Volt, due out in 2010. GM is planning to make 10,000 a year to start.

Against a backdrop of generally gloomy sales forecasts and belt-tightening, a chorus of optimism rose from automakers at the Paris show as the technical hurdles of hybrids, plug-ins and electric vehicle development -- primarily involving the cost and capacity of advanced-chemistry batteries -- are gradually being overcome.


“Two years ago nobody said an electric vehicle was even possible,” said Pitt Moos, marketing manager for Smart USA. “Today everybody is saying, ‘We’re going to make one.’ ”

At the show, Smart -- the maker of those tiny two-seat city cars -- announced plans to build all-electric vehicles for Europe by the end of the decade. But it hasn’t said what its intentions are for the U.S. market.

“The challenge has always been the battery,” Moos said. Compact, energy-dense lithium chemistry batteries for automotive applications are expensive and can be hazardous.

“We have just in the past couple of months become comfortable about a method of making lithium batteries for cars,” Moos said. “Now some people are starting to quote Obama: Yes, we can.”


Both Mercedes-Benz and BMW unveiled full-size luxury hybrid production models with lithium batteries: the S400 BlueHybrid and the 7-Series hybrid, respectively. Mercedes-Benz Chairman Dieter Zetsche said the S400 -- powered by a 275-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and a 15-kilowatt electric motor and a lithium-battery pack -- will be the world’s most economical luxury car with a gasoline engine. The car will be able to accelerate from zero to 62 mph in 7.2 seconds and get about 29 miles per gallon.

“This is just the beginning,” Zetsche said. “With this technology, we can hybridize all of our models in rapid succession. This car proves Mercedes will be able to downsize its emissions without downsizing its products.”

Among the French domestic carmakers: Renault unveiled its Ondelious concept, a large SUV crossover that combines a diesel combustion engine with electric motors (situated in the wheel hubs) powered by a single 4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.

Peugeot likewise dipped into diesel-electric waters with its Prologue crossover, which will go into production next year. Peugeot and Citroen, siblings under PSA Group, will share a hybrid system called Hymotion4, which involves an efficient diesel engine powering the front wheels and an electric motor/lithium battery driving the rear wheels.


Among smaller cars, Nissan revealed its quirky bubble-shaped NuVu concept, a proposal for an electric city car circa 2015.

Nissan says many of the concept car’s electric powertrain components will power the company’s new, still-mysterious dedicated electric vehicle, expected in 2010. Mitsubishi, meanwhile, talked up its i-MiEV electric cars with lithium batteries and about 100-mile range.

For all the enthusiasm for pure EVs and plug-ins, the notes of caution came from the two companies with the most experience in electric-assist mobility, Honda and Toyota.

Honda’s new Prius-fighter, the Insight, due in the U.S. next spring, uses an evolution of the company’s Integrated Motor Assist technology. The car, expected to be priced at about $19,000 (thousands less than a Prius), won’t be able to move under its own electrical power and so isn’t a candidate for plug-in adaptation.


“There’s too much that’s unknown yet about plug-ins,” said Honda spokesman Kurt Antonius. “The Insight is a pretty solid path to be on. But we’re not closing our eyes to any technology.”

In Paris, Toyota unveiled its plug-equipped version of the Prius with a lithium battery; However, officials stressed it was purely a research program and Toyota had no immediate plans to put plug-in technology into production.

“We have the experience of producing 1.6 million hybrids,” said powertrain general manager Gerald Killmann. “We understand the potential but also the constraints.” Still to be determined, he said, is the best compromise of battery weight, size, capacity, cost and range. “We first need to understand exactly what the customers need.”

Even so, Killmann, who has been testing the plug-in Prius in Europe, said he was starting to realize that lithium-battery problems are not insoluble.


“I’ve seen signs of this in my lab, but I can’t talk about it,” Killmann said. “It’s very challenging but also very exciting.”