Electric Cars: Some Are Real, Most Are Only 'Compliance Cars'--We Name Names Page 2

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Fiat 500 BEV Concept on Chrysler standard, 2010 Detroit Auto Show

Fiat 500 BEV Concept on Chrysler standard, 2010 Detroit Auto Show

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Fiat 500 Elettrica

After appearances at auto shows in 2010 and 2011, Chrysler has gone dark on the electric conversion of its Fiat 500 minicar.

Granted, the company has more pressing matters on its mind--a successful launch for its vitallly important 2013 Dodge Dart compact sedan, for instance--but Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne politely declined to answer a single question about the car.

He provided only these two statements: "The Fiat 500 EV will be a battery-electric vehicle" and "The Fiat 500 EV battery-electric vehicle will start production at the end of 2012."

Helpful, eh?

As with the Chevy Spark EV, an electric conversion of a tiny car much smaller than most Americans will consider is hardly a recipe for sales success. Of all the cars listed, we deem the electric Fiat 500 most likely to be a compliance car rather than a serious product.

2012 Ford Focus Electric

2012 Ford Focus Electric, New York City, April 2012

2012 Ford Focus Electric, New York City, April 2012

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We liked what we saw of the Focus Electric during a brief test drive last month. It's got the nice interior of the best-equipped gasoline Focus model, it handles well, performs decently, and it may be the first of these five cars to arrive at dealerships.

But the company's absolute refusal to answer the kinds of questions normally discussed at a new car launch--rollout plan, lease versus purchase, production targets--combine with some worrisome statements by company executives to make us think Ford is only minimally committed to battery electric vehicles.

It may be, as one observer suggested, that Ford is content to be a "fast follower," letting Nissan and GM develop the market for plug-in cars and make the inevitable mistakes, but ready to launch its own higher-volume vehicle once the market develops.

And, to be fair, the company is going all out to improve the fuel efficiency of all its gasoline vehicles across the board with its EcoBoost line of smaller, direct-injected and turbocharged engines.

But when Nancy Gioia, the former head of Ford's sustainability initiative, says, "There's no there, there, for electric vehicles"--that pretty much says it all.

Our verdict: Until proven otherwise, the Focus Electric is a compliance car that will nonetheless be heavily touted by Ford whenever it needs to buff up its green credentials.

2013 Honda Fit EV

Honda Fit EV shown at Los Angeles Auto Show, Nov 2011

Honda Fit EV shown at Los Angeles Auto Show, Nov 2011

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We know more about the electric Honda Fit, unveiled at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show and shown in near-production form at last year's LA show.

Honda obligingly revealed that it would lease the Fit EV for $399 a month (on a base price of $36,625), but not offer it for sale.

And, it said, it plans to offer only 1,100 of them from 2012 through 2014, starting in California and Oregon this summer, expanding into six East Coast markets next year.

That's a slam-dunk; it's a compliance car.

Honda, for what it's worth, continues to believe that its zero-emission vehicle future lies not in plug-in cars but in hydrogen fuel cells. It has delivered a handful of its Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell sedans each year since 2008.

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