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Electric cars: 'Plug-ins' look for spark in 2012

Automakers in 2012 will launch 13 plug-in vehicles, running on electricity alone all or most of the time. This is the year that will tell whether the electric car market has a roaring liftoff or a slow-rolling start, analysts say.

By Staff writer / February 6, 2012

People pose for photos at an electric-vehicle charging station at the dedication of Electric Avenue on the Portland State University campus in Portland, Ore., last August.

Don Ryan/AP/File

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It's early yet, but 2012 is shaping up as a white-knuckle Year 2 for the makers of new "plug-in" vehicles, who have wagered billions that the appeal of new electric-drive technologies will surmount hurdles not only from a weak-as-a-kitten economy, but also from high sticker prices and a spate of unfavorable publicity.

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No fewer than 11 automakers are launching 13 plug-in vehicles in all, ranging from tiny urban runabouts to sports cars and even station wagons. All will run on electricity alone for all or most of the time. Are consumers ready to plug into a garage charger or one at the local shopping mall if their car batteries are running low?

Nobody knows. It's a bold push toward an electric-drive world-without-oil – or at least a lot less oil. But this year will tell, analysts say, whether the launch is a roaring liftoff – or a slow-rolling start – for plug-ins.

Americans have already purchased at least 2 million conventional hybrids that have gas and electric motors but no plug. But plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles have much larger batteries and electric motors with a tiny gasoline engine, if they have one at all.

Chevrolet leaped into the fray last year with its Volt, the first mass-market plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), a sedan that goes 40 all-electric miles on a charge. It's powered by a big electric motor and a gas engine that recharges its battery. About the same time, Nissan launched its all-electric 100-miles-on-a-charge LEAF Hatchback.

Naysayers were hooting when sales for the two vehicles, projected to be 10,000 each for 2011, totaled only about 18,000. Yet most close ob-servers gave them a pass, saying production ramp-up challenges and Japan's tsunami, not lack of demand, were to blame. According to this view, the cars were available in only a few states, and buyers on waiting lists were itching to get their plug-ins.

But any excuses probably won't fly this year – the year plug-ins are supposed to "get real" – selling not just to movie stars and first-adopter zealots but to families and commuters in the suburbs as well.

So far, seven plug-in models are for sale: the two from Chevrolet and Nissan and other less widely available models from Mitsubishi, Daimler, BMW, and others. But new models will be hitting showrooms soon, according to the PluginCars.com website. Ford is rolling out its Focus EV; Toyota, its Plug-in Hybrid Prius and, later this year, its RAV4 EV. Volvo is offering a V70 PHEV station wagon; Honda, its popular Fit as an EV; and Daimler, its distinctive two-seater Smart as an EV; to name just a few.

Automakers have projected US sales of about 100,000 electric vehicles this year. But several analysts say it will probably reach only about two-thirds of that level, deflating an electric vehicle "hype bubble" so big it was bound to burst.

"It will be more of a slow ramp-up in sales of electric vehicles in the US, not explosive growth," says Kevin See, lead EV analyst at Lux Research, a Boston-based market research firm. "It's not that consumers don't want them – it's just that the cost of these vehicles is still so much higher than comparably equipped gaso-line vehicles – even with [federal] tax incentives."

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