PHOTO CAPTION: smart electric drive considered best electric car author has driven.

Electric Cars Are Best In the City

Laurent J. Masson sees the recent spate of small electric cars introduced at LA Auto Show as sign that carmakers are shifting their focus to practical, short-range city cars, better matching their capabilities with current technology.

Published: 06-Dec-2012

It's difficult in Europe to find anybody who sees electric vehicles as anything more than city cars. The modest sales of the Nissan LEAF, which we view as a compact in Europe, only confirm this opinion, and manufacturers are enthusiastic about the upcoming Renault Zoe and Volkswagen E-Up! which will both launch next year. The Mitsubishi i and the Smart Electric Drive have paved the way, showing there is a demand for silent emission-free motoring in the city. But this is Europe, and America is different. Or is it?

Two new electric cars were introduced last week at the Los Angeles auto show: the Chevrolet Spark EV and the Fiat 500e. Both are among the smallest cars on the market. There was a shiny concept too, the BMW i3 Concept Coupe, but it's not much larger, and significantly shorter than a Ford Focus. Plans to sell those two new production vehicles in Europe are not being discussed, but their specifications leave little doubt. They are much more similar to the average European car than to the American one. So could it be that the American electric car buyer is more European in character?

There are few facts to support the idea. An electric car doesn't need a large grille to cool a fire-breathing engine. An electric car must be light and have an aerodynamic shape because it has much less energy aboard than a gas car. An electric car doesn't have an engine that roars. All this makes it subtler than any car with an internal combustion engine. The idea is that it's much easier to imagine an electric city car than an electric Ford Mustang.

Taking the idea further, a city car with an electric drivetrain is a great match. I've already written that the Smart Electric Drive is the best electric car I've ever driven. I've driven faster electric cars, but the little Smart perfectly matched all my expectations for the vehicle. It even exceeded them. Its 85-mile range is not an issue. Nobody's going to drive cross-country in a Smart. Some people may argue that a city car relegates the electric car to a secondary role, only your spouse's car, but what's wrong with that? If the goal is to have the largest number of EVs on the road, it's better to have many families with a large gas sedan for the weekend trip and a small electric city car for the everyday commute, than a very limited number of families with a large and expensive electric sedan for every use. So ultimately, everything will depend on price.

Chevrolet announced that the Spark EV will be a couple thousand dollars cheaper than the LEAF, but Fiat has not yet divulged pricing on the 500e. The price advantage for the Spark comes despite it being more powerful than the LEAF. It's also worth noting that both the Chevrolet Spark and the Fiat 500 have a much more daring design than the LEAF or Ford Focus. This kind of styling is expected in Europe. A compact car can be bland, but a city car cannot. So if we add the lower price with the better match of customer's expectations, the exciting design (angry birds or classic Italian), and the better performance, it looks like city cars will soon be the leader among pure electric cars in the American market .


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