2012 Tesla Model S SignatureEnlarge Photo
NEW ELECTRIC CARS
While plug-in cars are still a tiny fraction of the overall market, their 2012 sales will likely be more than twice the 2011 total of 17,500.
More and more makers are launching at least one plug-in vehicle, though a number of them are solely "compliance cars" sold to meet California laws--and it's important to know which is which.
For the 2013 model year, the most significant car is the big all-electric Tesla Model S luxury sports sedan. All the rest are just compliance cars, more's the pity.
Somewhat to the surprise of the conservative automotive industry, Silicon Valley startup electric-car maker Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] has managed to get its Model S all-electric luxury sport sedan into production by the end of 2012--as the company said it would.
While volume production is lagging several weeks behind schedule, the company is now up to production rates of 100 a week.
And it says it has 13,000 reservations from depositors eager to take their place in the queue of eager Model S buyers.
The long queue contrasts with troubled startup Fisker Automotive, which has likely built only 3,000 or so of its Karma range-extended electric car, and sold only perhaps 2,000.
The early Model S production is exclusively the Signature Series limited edition model, with the largest 85-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and an EPA electric-range rating of 265 miles.
Reviews of the 2012 Tesla Model S electric car have been largely glowing, with paeans to its performance, quietness, styling, and the stunning 17-inch touchscreen display.
2012 Tesla Model S, brief test drive, New York City, July 2012Enlarge Photo
Critics have also noted the relatively plain interior, low level of electronic features and luxury options, and of course the potential for battery degradation over time.
Tesla is currently facing owner complaints over its mandatory $600 yearly maintenance plan--for a car that transmits its battery state to the carmaker every day, and otherwise has almost no moving parts or replaceable items beyond tires and wiper blades--but it may yet change its policies.
Still, the Model S is already a game-changer, just as the company's two-seat electric Roadster was in 2009.
If Tesla can get its production up to the promised level of 15,000 cars a year, without notable quality glitches--and handle inevitable updates or recalls expeditiously--then it may show the established carmakers that electric cars are a lot closer, and a lot nicer, than anyone thought.
2013 Chevrolet Spark EV
Chevrolet Spark EV Development Testing in Southern California, March 2012Enlarge Photo
The first of this year's two compliance cars, the 2013 Chevy Spark EV is an electric adaptation of its Spark minicar.
It's also GM's first battery-electric vehicle since the late lamented EV1.
Announced more than a year ago, the Spark EV will be considerably peppier than its gasoline counterpart--which our reviewer called "a dog" when fitted with the four-speed automatic option--but produced only in small numbers.
The car's electric motor--which it will build in Maryland--powers the front wheels and puts out peak power of 85 kilowatts (114 horsepower) and sustained power of about 55 kW (75 hp).
The gasoline model, by comparison, produces 84 hp from its 1.2-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine, and a whole lot less torque.
Earlier this year, Chevy did a great deal of publicity around the fact that it was testing Spark EVs in California.
Skeptical press coverage seems to have ended that, and the next step will be for the car itself to be unveiled in mid-November.
It remains unclear whether Chevy will market the Spark EV to Millennial buyers as relentlessly as it apparently will the gasoline model.
2013 Fiat 500E
2012 Fiat 500 Electric/ElettraEnlarge Photo
So far, there aren't even photos of the finished electric version of the Fiat 500 minicar.
Prototypes have been photographed in testing for a couple of years now, but it's hardly a priority vehicle for the Chrysler Corporation and its Fiat overlords, who are preoccupied with launching a competitive range of gasoline compact and mid-size cars--never mind the plug-ins.
What will likely be named the Fiat 500E is being developed in the U.S. by Chrysler's Detroit-based engineering teams.
That's because the company has to sell a few hundred zero-emission vehicles each year to comply with California law and avoid expensive fines of $5,000 for every ZEV that it doesn't sell of its allotted requirement.
The 500E is not a car that Chrysler wants to build, and the company will lose money on every one, as CEO Sergio Marchionne has pointed out several times.
It will likely be sold only in California, but driving enthusiasts everywhere are likely hoping that Fiat manages to hang onto some of the character and the brio of the bad-boy Fiat 500 Abarth hot hatch model.
The 2013 Fiat 500E will likely be shown at the Detroit Auto Show next January, or perhaps unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show in early December.