Electric Cars Get a Jolt

Carmakers are revving up to produce vehicles as easy to recharge as your Dirt Devil. PLUS: See our electric-car slide show.

SLIDE SHOW: Electric Cars to WatchMore on Green LivingOur 2008 Car Buying Guide

The concept iMiev has a 63-horsepower motor and a range of 80 miles in city driving from its battery. The vehicle recharges in about seven hours using a 220-volt plug, or 14 hours using a 110-volt outlet. You could pay as little as 2 to 3 cents per mile to power it, depending on local utility rates. The iMiev is on track to be sold in Japan next year and globally soon after that.

All charged up. Electric cars have been around since the 1890s, when Thomas Edison and a bunch of other inventors thought they'd hit on the key to mass locomotion. And no wonder: They're quiet, cheap to operate, and produce no tailpipe emissions. Yet they own a tiny niche in the small universe of environmentally palatable cars.

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But thanks to advances in battery technology, carmakers are revving up to produce a new generation of electric vehicles as easy to recharge as your Dirt Devil. Both General Motors and Toyota say they are within two years of a production-model plug-in hybrid. GM's Volt has a gas engine for backup, but it doesn't power the wheels; instead, it acts as a generator to recharge the battery for trips longer than 40 miles. Toyota is working on a plug-in Prius with similar technology. And Ford engineers have been spotted driving around Dearborn in a plug-in Edge.

The Tesla Roadster, which went into production in March, doesn't even bother with a gas engine. It can go 220 miles before its battery needs to be recharged, and it tops out at 125 miles per hour. (Arnold Schwarzenegger has one, and so do the founders of Google.) The 2008 model is sold out; the 2009 model costs $109,000. The launch of the Tesla has inspired other small electric-vehicle (EV) start-ups around the globe that are racing to produce their own versions of an electric car. Many of these firms are designing expensive vehicles and production will be limited. Plus, they have no sound business plan, let alone a track record for mass production.

Says Bradley Berman, editor of Hybridcars.com: "The smart money is on the Japanese carmakers." They have big R&D departments and support from the government to produce green vehicles, as opposed to the start-ups, which are financially fueled by venture capital. In fact, Mitsubishi wasn't the only carmaker pushing electric power at the New York Auto show. Subaru unveiled the tiny, two-seater R1e, a concept vehicle not yet scheduled for production, and Nissan presented its concept Denki Cube (denki means RelectricS in Japanese).

Not enough juice? Engineers and designers still have a lot of work to do to produce an EV that's reliable and practical enough for the mass market. Lithium-ion batteries are costly, prone to overheating and will eventually stop working (think about your laptop battery). The industry is working to increase driving range, reduce the time it takes to recharge the battery, and implement a network of charging and battery-replacement stations in case you run out of juice away from home. First-generation EVs will be suitable for commuting but not for long trips.

Electric utilities must be ready to meet increased demand, and some of that power may have to come from less-than-desirable coal-burning plants. Finally, the Governator can afford to pay a hundred grand for a toy like the Tesla, but GM and Toyota know that they had better be able to sell plug-ins for about $30,000. Don't be shocked if the first EVs, at least, come with even higher price tags.

Mark Solheim
Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Mark became editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine in July 2017. Prior to becoming editor, he was the Money and Living sections editor and, before that, the automotive writer. He has also been editor of Kiplinger.com as well as the magazine's managing editor, assistant managing editor and chief copy editor. Mark has also served as president of the Washington Automotive Press Association. In 1990 he was nominated for a National Magazine Award. Mark earned a B.A. from University of Virginia and an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Mark lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, and they spend as much time as possible in their Glen Arbor, Mich., vacation home.