Ready for a jolt? Electric cars are finally on showroom floors

You've heard about electric cars, right? They're those boxy little cars of the future that draw crowds of gawkers at the annual auto show. Well, here's an update. Those battery-powered vehicles aren't so boxy anymore; they're sleek sedans. And before the year is out you may find electric cars in your local Cadillac dealer's showroom.

Detroit is hardly poised to throw the mass production switch. But interest in the electric car market -- on the part of electric utilities, auto manufacturers, and small entrepreneurs -- has grown more serious in the past three years as government and industry try to find yet another way to beat the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

Already one small manufacturer, LectraMotors Inc. of Las Vegas, is leaping into the commercial mainstream with a still-growing, nationwide distributor-dealership system that numbers 65 dealers in 35 states.

Recruited during a two-month campaign begun in June, these established auto dealers -- whose showrooms already contain everything from Fords and Subarus to Cadillacs and Jaguars -- so far have placed orders for 1,383 Lectra cars. That total represents about $20 million in sales, according to Daniel D. Levitan, president of the Electric Car Company, North American distributor for LectraMotors' line of Lectra cars.

"There is a market out there," says Mr. Levitan, who has been in the car business for 25 years. "No one knows how large or how small it is."

"But these dealers don't want to pass up a VW or Mazda or Toyota opportunity, " he continues. "We've all missed those over the years. We think there's a market for the electric car and we want to get out feet wet."

Far from the futuristic-lookin, golf-cart-sized prototype electric cars displayed by various manufacturers in recent years, the Lectra car looks like a conventional subcompact. With powerful batteries replacing the gasoline engines , these converted Datsun sedans (another company is converting US-made Ford Escorts) can go from 0-30 m.p.h. in 8 seconds. The car's creature comforts rival their gas-burning cousins: air-conditioning is available and an automatic transmission is in the works. Cruising speed is 55 m.p.h., with a range 60 miles (70-100 miles under optimum conditions).

A definitive marketing study has yet to be done, but one sure thing can be said about whatever private-sector market currently exists: It caters to the well-to-do. Until technological advances bring down today's prices of $14,000 to $20,000 (depending on the model), Lectras are likely to appeal only to buyers who boast of three- and four-car garages.

"Quite frankly, it will be a toy for somebody at the country club," says Philip McLaughlin, owner of Quality Lincoln Mercury Subaru in Bloomington, Minn. , and a Lectra distributor for six Midwestern states.

Some industry analysts predict that the first big electric car market will be in "fleet" vehicles -- vans or trucks owned by large organizations that generally use their vehicles on short-distance business calls and that can afford to pay for the purchase and maintenance of the cars.

Still, these analysts agree, it is only a matter of time -- some say as early as the mid-'80s -- before electric car price tags drop below $10,000 (in 1981 dollars) and the market broadens its base. The key to that will be mass production and the development of a battery that allows a much wider range than the present average distance of 60 miles per battery charge. Research and development on a variety of technological improvements, including the battery, currently are being conducted on several fronts.

Although the US Department of Energy's (DOE) three-year-old electronic car demonstration program -- a cost-sharing program between the DOE and private and other government sectors -- fell under the budget-cutting ax, the department retained $19.6 million for electric car research and development, according to Paul J. Brown, director of the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Division.

Electric utilities, which have an obvious stake in electric car development, are eyeing the impact on electrical generation needs and the potential profits. According to Jerry Mader, electric transportation program manager for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a research center for some 300 utility companies, an estimated 10 to 20 utilities across the country have set up electric car demonstration programs. EPRI is testing electric cars at the country have set up electric car demonstration programs. EPRI is testing electric cars at the country's first electric car test and maintenance center, which opened at the Tennessee Valley Authority on Aug. 5.

Major automotive manufacturers, too, (particularly General Motors) are interested in the electric car market -- although some industry insiders worry that US manufacturers are moving so slowly that they will lose the market to the Japanese and West Germans, who have been pursuing aggressive electric car projects for some time.

"The next couple of years are going to be real crucial," says one researcher, who asks not to be identified. "if they [US auto manufacturers] continue going the way they're going, they'll miss it."

"They operate in a very secretive, competitive mode against each other," he says. "They're not risk-takers . . . and you have to take risks in this because the market will never be clearly defined until you get into it. It's a chicken and egg type of thing."

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