Electric vehicles are still waiting for their big break in the U.S. market, but Southern California is green car country, so BMW, Chevrolet and Fiat each rolled out an EV at the 2012 L.A. Auto Show.
All three electric cars are hatchbacks and all are destined for production in the next two years. They'll be built in limited numbers of course, but there's little doubt that commuting to work in an electric car is steadily becoming a more viable proposition.
BMW i3 Concept Coupe
We've seen the i3 before in Frankfurt, but it was a five-door hatchback, and that's the body style BMW will launch nationwide in January 2014. The i3 Concept Coupe shows another direction the automaker might take if it decides to expand its EV lineup later this decade.
Given how modular the architecture underneath the i3 is, BMW could offer it in pretty much any body style under the sun. The i3 employs a radical interpretation of body-on-frame construction (something you ordinarily see only on traditional full-size pickup trucks and SUVs) to address the inherent packaging challenges of a battery-powered electric drivetrain.
"An aluminum space frame houses the battery pack, the suspension, the electric motor which is mounted in back, and then the carbon-fiber body is mounted on top of that," Dave Buchko, product and technology communications manager for BMW North America tells us. "This design lays out all the lithium-ion battery cells in a nice array in the space frame, keeps them low, which gives us a low center of gravity and good weight distribution.
"But it changes a lot of the interior design of the car — for example, you've got a completely flat floor so the layout can be quite different than a conventional car."
The materials in the BMW i3 coupe's cabin are close to production-ready, Buchko told us, so this showcar offers a good look at the sustainable bamboo trim and wool-based upholstery BMW plans to offer.
The BMW i3 production car will be rear-wheel drive, with its electric motor capable of drawing 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque from the batteries. It's the same basic drivetrain used in the ActiveE electric 1 Series coupe, but since the i3 weighs 800 pounds less, 0-60-mph acceleration should be significantly quicker than the ActiveE's claimed 9 seconds.
BMW is targeting a range of 100 miles. If that's not enough for you, the automaker plans to offer an optional range-extending 1.5-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine that'll get you to 200 miles and make the i3 road trip-worthy.
2014 Chevrolet Spark EV
In comparison, the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV is a much simpler car, as it's an electrified version of a subcompact hatchback that Chevy already sells in the United States. The electric Spark goes on sale in the second quarter of 2013.
In place of the fuel tank, the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV has a 20-kilowatt-hour, liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack that reportedly provides 130 hp to a front-drive electric motor. That's enough pop to get the electric Spark to 60 mph in under 8 seconds with a top speed of 95 mph, say GM officials.
There's still room for a usable backseat in the Spark EV (usable by subcompact standards, anyway) although, due to packaging constraints, the bench is mounted slightly higher than in the conventional Spark. The rear suspension is still a semi-independent twist-beam design, but it's heavier-duty than the regular Spark's setup to offset the weight of the batteries, which push curb weight up to 2,869 pounds — 600 more than the standard car. The Spark EV also gets four-wheel disc brakes in place of the standard front discs/rear drums, and it uses the same regenerative braking system as the Chevy Volt.
One detail Chevrolet officials haven't divulged is estimated cruising range, though Larry Nitz, GM's executive director of hybrid and electric powertrain engineering, insists it will offer "near best-in-class range" — which he says will put it between the Nissan Leaf (EPA-rated 73 miles of range) and Honda Fit EV (82 miles).
A slightly bigger issue for future owners is charge time. Like the Volt and Leaf, the Chevy Spark EV uses a 3.3-kilowatt charger (instead of a more robust 6.6kW charger), so it takes a lengthy 7 hours to get a full charge when plugged into a Level II, 240-volt charging unit. There's an additional port that allows you to use a DC quick charger (which provides an 80 percent charge in 20 minutes, we're told) if you find one.
Expect a base MSRP in the $30Ks, as company officials tells us the electric Chevy Spark will come in under $25,000 once federal and state tax credits are applied. Don't expect to see too many of these cars, though, as GM only plans to sell the Chevrolet Spark EV in California and Oregon.
2013 Fiat 500e
You might not think the tiny Fiat 500 would be a good starting point for an electric car, but the automaker's engineers have put a lot of care into packaging the EV components into this hatchback, and we expect the 500e to offer impressive performance when it goes on sale in the second quarter of 2013.
Equipped with an electric motor rated at 111 hp and 147 lb-ft of torque running off a liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack, the Fiat 500e won't be as quick as the electric Spark, but the automaker is still predicting a 0-60 time of 9 seconds, which would put it ahead of the Ford Focus Electric. Top speed is 85 mph. Company officials peg range at 80 miles, but say that 100 miles is possible in full-on city traffic conditions.
However the EPA range estimates shape out, the average driver should have some hope of achieving them, as Fiat is unafraid to let you use regenerative braking to full effect. Regen braking is active up to 100 percent of the limit of tire grip, meaning that you'll only experience the conventional friction brakes when you trigger the ABS or vehicle speed drops below 8 mph. Alongside that, Fiat officials insist that the 500e will drive normally without the hyper-aggressive regen feel of say, the Mini E.
There's little doubt the 500e's extra 500 pounds will change its character, but Fiat's engineers have tuned its suspension to land somewhere between the standard Fiat 500 Sport and the 500 Abarth on the sportiness spectrum. Further, they specified wider wheels in the rear (15-by-6 inches versus 15-by-5.5 up front). This helps offset the addition of the battery pack — which pushes the car's center of mass rearward — by giving you a larger contact patch in back.
Interestingly, the addition of the 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack results in a dramatic improvement in aerodynamic efficiency (resulting in a 0.31 coefficient of drag, down from 0.36), as the pack smoothes air flow across the bottom of the car — on a standard Fiat 500, of course, there's a much less aerodynamic exhaust system in this space. There's no loss of cargo capacity in the 2013 Fiat 500e, by the way, as the batteries fit neatly under the cargo floor, though not surprisingly, you won't be able to order a spare tire for the electric Fiat 500.
Charging the 500e at 240 volts will take just 4 hours, Fiat officials tell us, thanks to the car's 6.6kW charger.
If all this sounds good to you, pack up and move to California, as that's the only U.S. state where Fiat will sell the 500e initially, though the company has left the door open for a larger U.S. rollout.