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Will your next car be electric?

The Renault Zoe ZE was one of four electric concepts unveiled by the French automaker at this year's Frankfurt Auto Show.

Posted by Rob Klovance

The presence of electric cars galore at the world's biggest auto show sends a strong message that, five years after the electric car was killed, it's on its way to being resurrected as something other than a plaything for the rich and famous.

But chances are that, unless you're willing to wait a few years or spend a whole lot of money on a Tesla Roadster it won't be your next car.

As automakers unveiled dozens of electric models at the Frankfurt Auto Show, and some announced plans to produce e-vehicles as early as 2011, journalists and industry experts greeted the hype with considerable skepticism.

"Beyond the hip music and snazzy displays, electric cars face some sobering realities that make them vehicles of the future rather than of the present," wrote Business Week's Moira Herbst. "The biggest issues are price and usability."

"There's no doubt that e-mobility is coming because oil is a finite resource," wrote the Globe & Mail's Eric Reguly in an excellent examination of electric cars' short-term potential. "But the vast majority of consumers won't go near e-cars unless they go as far, and cost as little, as regular cars. And that could take decades."

In wrapping up his piece, Reguly cited the prediction of international consulting and research firm IHS Global Insight: e-cars will account for .6% of global industry production volume in 2020, with an additional 0.7 per cent coming from hybrids. Other industry analysts are more bullish on e-cars, with one forecast suggesting anywhere from 10% to 60% of new cars purchased by 2025 will be electric.

The highest hurdles to widespread acceptance remain price and battery technology. And although range isn't a major issue for the urban commuter, more widespread acceptance is limited by the fact most current concepts are incapable of going more than 150 kilometres between charges.

It appears that while the mass market electric car has been conceived, development of this baby is in that dangerous first trimester – a lot of things could happen between now and the birth of something like Volkswagen's e-up! (more on that later). Unless you're lucky enough to be working for a major utility – BC Hydro is helping test the Mitsubishi i MiEV starting later this year – it will be awhile before you actually drive one.

Still, like an expectant parent, it's fun to talk about. Don't go painting the nursery just yet, but here's a look at some of the concepts unveiled in Frankfurt.

Volkswagen e-up!

Hyped as the "Beetle of the 21st century", the e-up! is a tiny (3.19 metres long) four-seater with a top speed of 135 km/h. VW claims the e-up! will be in market by 2013 and that it will get 130 kilometres on a single charge.

For more on the e-up!, check out this story by The Canadian Press.

Four concepts from Renault

French automaker Renault is among the most aggressive on e-vehicles, claiming that its Fluence Z.E. will be in production in 2011. The five-seater's range is pegged at 160 kilometres.

Far smaller is the futuristic Twizy Z.E. concept, an ultracompact two-seater with a top speed of 75 km/h and one of the most bizarre aesthetics at the Frankfurt show. It looks like a high-end stroller on steroids, and appears to be a safer, more comfortable alternative to bike commuting.

Also destined to be an urban vehicle, but with four seats, is the Zoe Z.E. concept, which offers some luxury features – retractable rear spoiler and mood lighting – along with a range of 160 km/h.

Renault's fourth concept is the Kangoo Z.E., an electric van designed for fleet and commercial use and features solar roof panels.

Wondering what the Z.E. stands for? It's zero emissions, a problematic term in that when assessing the CO2 emissions of electric vehicles, the source of electricity has to be considered. Here in hydroelectricity-dominated B.C., the CO2 impacts are low, but in areas where fossil fuel power generation is the rule, rather than the exception, the emissions reductions related to electric car use are debatable.

Audi's e-tron

Tron Legacy, the sequel to the 1982 film Tron, is due for release on December 17, 2010, long before we can expect to see Audi's e-tron electric car available for those who want quattro all-wheel drive in an electric vehicle.

But the car, as shown in Frankfurt, looks promising, if a little too much like Lightning McQueen from the front. The concept car at the show was a flashy red and, according to Audi, the car will go zero to 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds while going 154 kilometres between charges. Four electric motors, two on each axle, provide the all-wheel drive.

If and when we see it on the street, it will be pricey. So if you're interested, start saving now.

Maybe your next car will be a hybrid

It's far more likely that, for the eco-conscious, the more practical choice in the near future will be a plug-in hybrid vehicle. The Chevrolet Volt is set for release in November, 2010, and the Frankfurt show featured many hybrids, several of which are included on thegreencarwebsite's list of Top Green Cars at Frankfurt.

The hybrid that has me most excited is the Peugeot 308 hybrid, which the French carmaker plans to have on the market, somewhere, for 2010. On a recent trip to France, I rented a diesel Peugeot and loved it, getting an equivalent 49 miles to the gallon without sacrificing power or comfort. The diesel-electric hybrid version of the car is claiming efficiency of up to 83 miles (133 km) to the gallon.

The bad news? The only Peugeots available in Canada, and just introduced this year, are the company's scooters. Let's just hope that the success of energy-efficient cars like the 308 in Europe, and our growing appetite for them, will prompt Peugeot to include Canada among the list of 150 or so countries in which it sells its cars.

Rob Klovance is managing editor of bchydro.com.

Views expressed in Unplug This Blog! are not necessarily those of BC Hydro.