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The Spark EV is GM’s teeny, tiny electric offering. (General Motors)
The Spark EV is GM’s teeny, tiny electric offering. (General Motors)

The Green Highway

Barely a Spark of excitement for electric vehicles Add to ...

The Los Angeles Auto Show likes to think of itself as the “green” auto show. So what did the Detroit Three showcase? Chrysler jammed a 540-horsepower V-8 Hemi into its 300 sedan. Dodge launched the Yellow Jacket name for 470-horsepower versions of the Charger and Challenge. Chevrolet launched a 580-horsepower Camaro ZL1 convertible and Ford, not to be out-done, introduced a Shelby GT500 Mustang cranking out 650 horsepower.

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Sometimes I wonder what planet these companies are from. Maybe it’s one last gasp of muscle before the 2016 and 2025 fuel economy regulations stop them in their tracks. However, also present at the show, and attracting far less attention, were two little electric cars that might more accurately portend the (boring) future of driving.

General Motors rolled out the Spark EV, which will be GM’s first all-electric vehicle since the EV1 in 1996. The EV1 became famous when GM dropped it, thanks to the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? Well, times have changed and GM isn’t likely to kill this one. First of all, this EV started out as the gasoline-powered Spark mini-car, engineered and manufactured in South Korea, that will become the smallest Chevy in North America when it goes on sale next year.

They’ve yanked out the gasoline engine, transmission, fuel tank and a few other things and put in an electric motor and hidden a big lithium-ion battery under the rear seat and cargo area. The battery features “nanophosphate technology,” which GM says will shorten charge time and increase the range, but no details were offered.

I guess Chevy’s getting tired of being kicked around by competitors who say the Chevy Volt isn’t a “real” electric car because it has a gasoline engine as well as an electric motor. Anyway, the Spark EV is supposed to arrive in limited numbers in 2013 although we have been hearing about the Spark since 2007. Oh yes, there was a bankruptcy in there that might have slowed things down.

Over at the Honda stand, they were showing off the new Fit EV. Again, this was originally a gasoline-powered car. It’s like the Fit that’s sold in Canada but with the economical 1.5-litre gasoline engine removed and replaced with lithium ion batteries and an electric motor. The Fit’s not too big to begin with and you lose a bit of interior and cargo space to the batteries but it’s nothing like the old days when early EVs like the Mini Electric lost the whole back seat to batteries.

The Fit builds in a 32-amp onboard charger that can charge the battery in less than three hours from a 240-volt outlet. Honda hasn’t been pinned down on the range expected from a full charge – somewhere between 76 and 123 miles. And don’t get after me for not converting to kilometres – this one isn’t going to be available in Canada. It’ll be lease-only ($399 a month for three years) in a few selected American cities.

So this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show wasn’t very green at all. The two new all-electrics are strictly trial balloons that will be dribbled out in limited numbers in limited places. The much-delayed Ford Focus Electric wasn’t even on the stand over at the Blue Oval. Ford can get 650-horsepower Mustangs out the door but no luck so far producing an electric car. Yes, there is an electric van, the Ford Transit Connect.

The electric car era, if that’s what it’s going to be, is a slow starter. Nissan has the all-electric Leaf available in reasonable numbers but the rest of the manufacturers are slow, slow, slow. Maybe they know they’ll never make a buck on this version of green until the cost of batteries goes way down. In the meantime, enjoy your 400, 500, 600 horsepower monsters.

P.S. In case you were wondering, as I predicted last week, the compressed natural gas version of the Honda Civic won the Green Car of the Year award.

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