Since last year, you've likely heard a lot about electric cars. You'll hear much more in the years to come.

But whether you're a fan or a foe, understand this: A few of the battery-electric cars you've heard about are "real"--meaning their makers want to sell as many as they can.

But quite a few of them aren't. They're not meant to lure in consumers, or sell in any kind of volume.

They're only built to meet California regulations for zero-emission vehicles--which is why they're called "compliance cars."

It's important for buyers, electric-car fans, and the greater public to know which is which, because the automakers won't tell you.

All about volume

"Compliance cars" will be made in much lower volumes: only up to a few thousand, versus the tens and hundreds of thousands that makers like Nissan hope to sell.

Today, there are three battery electric cars on sale in the U.S.: the Coda Sedan, Mitsubishi 'i', and Nissan Leaf. Later this year, they will be joined by the Ford Focus Electric and the Tesla Model S.

By 2014, we'll see further new plug-in entries from BMW, Chevrolet, Fiat, Honda, Scion, Smart, Tesla, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Marin County, California

Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Marin County, California

Starting this year, California requires that carmakers of a certain size ensure that at least a small portion of their volume comes from zero-emission vehicles--either battery electric cars or fuel-cell electric vehicles.

Carmakers can meet the overall requirement using a combination of car types, including larger numbers of plug-in hybrids with partial electric range.

The first round of requirements applies only to the carmakers with the highest California sales. In order, they are: Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Nissan, and Chrysler.

What is real?

So what makes a battery electric car "real," and distinguishes it from a compliance car?

We'd suggest that any plug-in car has to meet the following criteria before it can be considered real:

  • It's sold outright to consumers, not only leased; and
  • It will sell at least 5,000 or more a year in the U.S. or reach total global sales of 20,000; and
  • It's offered outside the 'California emissions' states, or will be within 18 months

Any car that doesn't meet those tests at a minimum isn't a serious volume car; it's either part of a test fleet or it exists just to comply with the ZEV requirement.

Applying that test, we can find only four battery-electric cars that are or may be "real" during 2012. Three are on sale now, one isn't yet:

  • 2012 Nissan Leaf
  • 2012 Mitsubishi 'i'
  • 2012 Coda Sedan
  • 2012 Tesla Model S

The Coda Sedan just went on sale in March (and Coda refuses to say how many it's sold), so we're reserving judgement until we see if the company can come anywhere close to its first-year sales goal of 14,000.

2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011

2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011

We're also convinced that Tesla intends to sell every Model S it can build, but that car won't arrive on the market until July, so it will take a few months more to verify its "realness."

(By the way, we also consider the Chevrolet Volt , the Fisker Karma, and the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid to be real--but they have gasoline engines as well as plugs, so they don't qualify as pure ZEVs in California--so this article doesn't apply to them.)

Naming names

OK, so which cars aren't real? We believe several battery-electric cars announced for 2012 through 2014 are only "compliance cars."

Not so coincidentally, there's one apiece from each of the five non-Nissan carmakers required to sell ZEVs starting this year:

  • Chevrolet Spark EV
  • Fiat 500 Elettrica
  • Ford Focus Electric
  • Honda Fit EV
  • Toyota RAV4 EV

All are conversions of existing gasoline vehicles, rather than purpose-built battery-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S. Four of the five manufacturers are consistently opaque--for which read stonewalling--about even the basic details of their cars' technologies, launch plans, and sales areas.

And those are the tipoffs that these are all compliance cars. We'll go through them one by one.

2013 Chevrolet Spark EV

2013 Chevrolet Spark EV cutaway

2013 Chevrolet Spark EV cutaway

GM confirmed production of the Chevrolet Spark EV last October, and we know:

What GM refuses to say--despite our repeated inquiries--is when it will put the Spark EV on sale, whether it will be sold or just leased, which states it will be offered in, and what it will cost. In fact, the company hasn't even said when or where it will reveal the actual car.

It also won't discuss the car's battery-pack capacity, its electric range, its likely MPGe rating, its recharging time, where the electric conversion will be done, or its production volume.

But the electric conversion of the Spark remains a tiny car--far from the compact segment that's today's sweet spot for electric cars--and GM already has one plug-in halo car, the range-extended electric Chevy Volt.

Our conclusion: The Chevy Spark EV will be a compliance car, nothing more.

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

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

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

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

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.

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV Prototype

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV Prototype

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV

Finally, we come to the exciting electric conversion of Toyota's compact crossover RAV4, which we liked in our test drive of a prototype a year ago.

With a powertrain designed by Tesla, the 2012 RAV4 EV will be the first all-electric crossover since the 2002 demise of the original RAV4 EV--hundreds of which are still running around California today. It will assembled at the RAV4 production plant in Canada.

We'll get full details on Monday, but based on everything we've heard--most of it off the record--we're firmly convinced that the RAV4 EV is solely a compliance car for 2012 through 2014.

One tipoff? The electric RAV4 will only be available in California, at least initially. We're betting that any subsequent rollout is limited to Oregon, Washington, and the group of East Coast states that have adopted California's stricter emissions standards.

So we'll be watching next week to see if Toyota says anything about how many RAV4 EVs it hopes to sell--we're betting they won't--and whether the company will offer it to civilian buyers or simply as a fleet vehicle.

Toyota FCV-R hydrogen fuel-cell concept car, 2012 Detroit Auto Show

Toyota FCV-R hydrogen fuel-cell concept car, 2012 Detroit Auto Show

We also wonder if it'll be sold outright, or only offered on lease. If it's the latter, it means Toyota will be able to take back and destroy every one of its new-generation electric cars--another demonstration that the company doesn't believe in the segment.

Toyota too has a zero-emission vehicle solution. In 2015, it plans to put a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle on sale. It was originally going to cost $50,000, but that price has risen a whole lot of late.

Still, Toyota showed its FCV-R Concept hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle at this year's Detroit Auto Show, and insiders tell us that's the car that will go into production in 2015.

Battery-electric cars? Toyota just doesn't believe in them.

Treading water after Leaf, Volt

As always, longtime electric-car advocate Chelsea Sexton summed up the situation in a few words.

"The unfortunate reality is that I can't think of a single program coming this year or in 2013 that is intended to be as high-volume as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt," she told Green Car Reports.

"The industry basically debuted with its most ambitious programs, and has been treading water in the shallow end ever since."

Does it matter?

So if you're considering the purchase or lease of a plug-in car, it bears to keep in mind which manufacturers are committed to the segment, and which are only doing it to comply with regulations in the state that represents the country's single biggest car market.

Do you want a car that's a begrudging, low-volume effort from a manufacturer not committed to the segment?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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