The impending Chevrolet Volt and a trio of Chrysler “electric” cars recall a fiasco that ensnared General Motors and Honda nearly a decade ago.
Seeking to lead the industry in electric-car development, the two auto makers on a limited basis introduced electric-hybrid subcompact cars called the EV1 and the EV-Plus, respectively.
The cars were sporty looking, like the Chevrolet Volt due out in 2010, and were rolled out as game-changing econocars that would begin the long-sought process of ramping down the world's dependence on gasoline internal combustion engines.
The idea of powering vehicles with batteries goes back to the beginnings of this industry. But earlier efforts were futile and remained so because of the weight of the batteries and their inability to run more than 100 miles, if that, before needing to be recharged.
The cellphones' lithium-ion battery that promises to resolve the cruising range problem of Volt & Co. was far from being perfected 10 years ago as the key to “electrifying” vehicles in the 21st century.
Range of the new crop of e-cars will be extended to 200 and 300 miles, say the tech guys at GM and Chrysler. And the batteries will be significantly lighter and longer lasting. They can be recharged at home or on the road with plug-in capability at any electric outlet.
Aware that their EV1 and EV-Plus babies could stumble because of limited ranges, GM and Honda introduced them in an unprecedented way.
The cars were to be leased only at select Saturn dealers in southern California and Honda dealers in Arizona. Owners at lease-end (36 months) could not purchase the vehicles. And GM and Honda inserted into the lease agreements a fine-print provision exempting the automakers from any legal damages in the event of vehicle breakdowns due to battery failures.
I recall picking up an EV1 in Los Angeles for a media evaluation. The car had plenty of pickup and cornering capability.
It ran up to 70 miles per hour on Interstate 405, which connects L.A. to the San Fernando Valley suburbs. An aide at the media-vehicle outlet, A&M, gave me a run-through before I set out for the stop-and-go trek north on the 405 freeway. It drove wonderfully.
But pulling off the freeway for a snack, this veteran of vehicle car tests was stunned when I returned to the car and was unable to rev it up.
“The battery is dead,” I groaned. An SOS call to A&M brought a chuckle. “You've started it,” I was told. “Like a golf cart, it's noiseless. That's what owners like about it.”
Regardless, the EV1s and the EV-Pluses fell victim to their limited ranges. They conked out on people ranging from a movie star to a GM top executive.
They also begat a rough documentary called, “How GM Killed the Electric Car.” It took some pot shots and related how GM crushed EV1s that went back to dealers when the leases expired.
Car buffs were appalled by such “car-nage.” So were the dealers who leased the new wave of e-cars. But all was not lost. GM says much of the electric vehicle technology pioneered in the mid-1990s with the EV1 was used for the upcoming Volt.
Hopefully, the Volt and Chrysler e-cars will possess suitable cruising ranges and not need to be leased only.
But please, guys, give the second generation of e-cars a bit of engine noise for safety's sake and to the relief of testers like me.
Mac Gordon is dean of U.S. auto writers. He can be reached at [email protected]