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Electric cars charge into NW roads, markets

Ford, Toyota tout new models as companies tap cheap power
by: JAIME VALDEZ Portland is embracing electric vehicles, as shown by this Nissan Leaf in a caravan of EVs to the opening of the documentary, "Revenge of the Electric Cars."

Ford chose the first day of the 2011 Seattle Auto Show to announce that its all-electric Focus is now on sale.

Standing beside a Focus Electric, Ford executive Mike Tinskey said the company picked Seattle because the Pacific Northwest is the ideal market for the car. Not only are residents environmentally conscious, but electricity rates are also relatively low because of the region's abundant hydropower, he said.

'People here get it about electric cars. They are clean and cost much less to operate than cars powered by fossil fuels,' said Tinskey, Ford's sustainability director.

The electrification of motor vehicles was a major theme of briefings held by manufacturer before the show opened on Nov. 2. In addition to the all-electric version of Ford's new compact hatchback, Fisker unveiled its new plug-in Karma hybrid, a high-performance luxury sedan.

Toyota had its upcoming plug-in Prius hybrid there, too. General Motors introduced several models with eAssist, a no-cost mild hybrid option. Mitsubishi offered test drive of the 'i,' its all-electric subcompact.

A number of independent all-electric car manufacturers also were present, including Wheego and Coda. They all joined updated versions of existing electric cars, like the redesigned Toyota Camry Hybrid and the SmartFortwo Electric.

The show coincided with the opening of 'Revenge of the Electric Car,' a movie documenting the remarkable turnaround on electric vehicles (EVs) by major manufacturers. It is the sequel to the 2006 documentary 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' that accused General Motors of intentionally sabotaging its groundbreaking EV program.

The new movie follows the successful development of the two best-known EVs on the market today, the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt. Both companies are expecting the movie to increase consumer interest in their cars.

Portland-area EV owners marked the opening with a caravan to the Hollywood Theatre, where the debut was held on Nov. 4. The caravan began at the Hollywood Fred Meyer, where public EV charging stations were recently installed. Chris Paine, the director of both films, praised the new emphasis on EV at the premiere.

The updated and new EVs are coming out despite obstacles that must be overcome be overcome before the cars become big sellers. Prices for most models are still substantially higher than conventional cars, largely because of their expensive new technologies and relatively low production runs. The Focus Electric costs thousands more than a gas-powered Focus, even after $9,000 in federal and state tax credits, for example. Public charging stations are also being installed at a slower rate then originally announced.

Tinskey thinks electric vehicles are catching on despite these problems.

'We've reached a tipping point on EVs,' said Tinskey, who predicts that between 10 and 25 percent of all cars will have some form of electrification by 2020. Some other manufacturers at the show predicted 50 percent.

Most, if not all, of the electric vehicles will also be on display at the 2012 Portland International Auto Show, Jan. 26 to 29 at the Oregon Convention Center. The show is presented by the Portland Metropolitan New Car Dealer Association. The Portland Tribune is the media sponsor.

Charging stations get a plug

As documented in 'Revenge of the Electric Car,' Nissan was the first company to sell a mass marketed all-electric car in America. The compact Leaf runs entirely on electric power stored by onboard batteries. It has a range of approximately 100 miles on a full charge. Estimated charging times are 21 hours on a 110-volt outlet, eight hours on a 220-volt charger and about 30 minutes on a DC fast charger to reach 80 percent of battery strength.

The Leaf sells for a little less than $26,000 after tax credits.

Nissan executives told journalists in Seattle that about 16,000 Leafs already have been sold, 8,000 in America and 8,000 in the rest of the world. Each is a rolling research platform that uploads information to the company on how it is driven and recharged. So far, the data show that the Leafs have collectively been driven more than 11 million miles. The average trip is about seven miles. The average daily travel length is about 37 miles, well below the maximum range. Average charging time is about three hours.

Tinskey also says the Focus Electric is suitable for everyday use. According to Ford researchers, the average commuter drives fewer than 50 miles each day, just half of the car's 100-mile range on a full charge. The Focus can be fully recharged on 240 volts in just three hours, less than half the time needed for the Leaf. It costs about $31,000 after tax credits.

Other manufacturers at the show believe many potential customers worry about running out of electricity between recharges. The Volt and Karma are so-called extended range electric vehicles, meaning they have gas-powered onboard generators that create electricity when the batteries run out after the first 50 or so miles. Recharge times are about the same as for the Leaf.

Although Tinskey says almost all electric vehicle owners recharge their cars at home, he is confident that long trips will be possible once a public charging station infrastructure is complete. Plans call for turning Interstate 5 between Canada and Mexico into an electric corridor with 240-volt and DC fast chargers every 50 or so miles.

The federally funded ECOtality company is scheduled to install about 800 public charging station in Oregon during the next two years.

Hybrids were still the most popular form of EVs at the show, however. They included a new, larger model of the original Toyota Prius, updated versions of the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Lincoln MKZ sedans, the new Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima sedans, and various General Motors products with eAssist.

Clean diesel on display

Not every economy car at the show used electrification to achieve good mileage. To the contrary, virtually every manufacturer offered a new, conventionally powered small car that achieves the same goal. They include the Fiat 500 and Scion iQ microcars, the mechanically similar Ford Fiesta and Mazda 2 subcompacts, the gasoline-powered Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze compacts, and the Chevy Sonic, the only small car currently built in America.

They joined revised versions of the Hyundai Accent and Elantra, the Kia Rio, the Nissan Versa, and the Toyota Yaris.

High-mileage diesel-powered cars continued making their comeback, too. Most notable were the four new cars offered by Volkswagen that are available with the company's so-called Clean Diesel technology. They include the revised Beetle, the subcompact Golf, the compact Jetta and the midsize Passat. All claim EPA rating of more than 50 miles per gallon on the highway.

Mazda used the show to unveil its new SkyActiv technology. The company has essentially focused on improving the efficiency of every part of its cars to boost mileage, including the drivetrains, bodies and platforms. Significant changes include reduced weights and engines with higher compression ratio that can run on regular gas.

Despite the lagging economy, such vehicles helped push attendance at the 2011 Seattle Auto Show to record levels.