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'We are at the beginning.'

PARIS -- Spend a week visiting a half dozen of France's most picturesque cities and one feasts on stunning monolithic architecture, monumental scenery and fascinating art.It's all the more curious, then, that these same cities are home to perhaps the most extensive electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure in the world.The French, it turns out, are quite committed to the EV.We are not.It's not that the

PARIS -- Spend a week visiting a half dozen of France's most picturesque cities and one feasts on stunning monolithic architecture, monumental scenery and fascinating art.

It's all the more curious, then, that these same cities are home to perhaps the most extensive electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure in the world.

The French, it turns out, are quite committed to the EV.

We are not.

It's not that the French have some starting breakthrough EV technology they're keeping to themselves. Far from it, in fact. Until the nicely appointed (and pleasant-to-drive), production-based electric Peugeot 106 and Citroen AX are launched in Europe this spring by Peugeot SA, every EV available in France up to now has been a tiny, spartan, relatively low-tech affair that wouldn't stand a chance in the American market.

So if the cars aren't very good (at least so far), why are the French so positive about the EV's future -- while so many in the U.S. remain unconvinced?

* Generally, France's socio-economic structure remains city-based. The everyday Frenchman sees it as practical -- even desirable -- to live in the city, and does so; even the affluent choose to live in the city centers, and much of France's industrial complex is linked to this structure.

Because so many citizens live in the city, parking is at a premium. This makes small "city" cars attractive -- and EVs are best if they needn't be huge.

Statistics published by AVERE France, a consortium of EV-related businesses and suppliers, indicate that half of all in-town trips are 5 km (3.1 miles) or less, with fully 80% running less than 50 km (31 miles). That's good because even the best EVs can't go either too far or too fast.

In short, if there's one purpose that EVs, in their current and near-term state of development, could fulfill passably well, it would be to serve as city cars.

Unfortunately, the concept of the city car is all but meaningless in the U.S.; large parts of our cities are abandoned and decayed, the middle- and upper-classes having long since moved far away to the suburbs.

* Traffic in most major French cities is choking -- literally. Aside from the obvious health detriments, French government officials are worried that the noxious emissons from internal-combustion engines could be ruining historic public artworks and buildings.

EVs could help to curb some of the awful traffic fumes in our cities, too, but apart from that, nobody cares -- many cynics feel that there's little left in U.S. cities worth saving.

* Fossil fuels are monstrously expensive in Europe. Unleaded gasoline costs roughly $4.15 per gallon, diesel $3.40. A typical fill-up costs $60. Compare that to unleaded gasoline at approximately $1.15 here. An EV, working at about 1.5 cents per mile in energy cost (equal to paying about 45 cents per gallon for gasoline in a 30-mpg car), looks considerably more attractive in Europe.

* Electric power is abundant in France. The country has one of the world's most highly developed nuclear power systems (nuclear plants produce 75% of France's electricity) and France's national power grid is usually producing electricity at a surplus.

* The experience of destruction and reconstruction resulting from two World Wars has left the French accustomed to a certain degree of forced personal austerity. Unlike profligate Americans, the French don't necessarily want -- nor have they been conditioned to believe they need -- large, ostentatious vehicles.

"We are at the beginning of a grand experiment," explains Francois Fantin, secretary general, AVERE France, of France's energetic EV infrastructure programs. He is careful to note that the bulk of his country's EVs are in the hands of utilities and municipalities, with Electricite De France (EDF) being the prime player, operating more than 300 electric vehicles nationwide. In total, there are about 3,000 EVs operated by government, industries and municipalities in all of France.

Mr. Fantin contrasts the situation in his country, where there are no government mandates "forcing" EV development, with the U.S., where both foreign and domestic automakers are battling a host of regulatory agencies that insist there is an ample, albeit submerged, EV market.

"French automakers are probably more devoted to creating a consumer EV market," than are the Big Three automakers, Mr. Fantin says. While municipal and business buyers enjoy lucrative EV discounts, he admits there is little current incentive for individuals to buy EVs.

That hasn't stopped 30 citizens of the gorgeous Atlantic port city of La Rochelle from participating in an ambitious test-drive program initiated in December 1993 by Peugeot SA to test a total of 50 electric versions of the Peugeot 106/Citroen AX, EVs the company will begin producing in volume this spring.

If this sounds suspiciously like General Motors Corp.'s nationwide test drive program for its Impact EV, forget it. GM loans out the Impact to individuals for two weeks, with GM footing most of the bill. The test drivers in PSA's program had to buy the cars outright.

The 30 private 106/AX testers shell out roughly $200 monthly for the privilege of acting as PSA's guinea pigs. The cars cost an added FF30,000 (about $6,000) above the cost of internal-combustion versions of the same cars. Moreover, testers must "rent" the vehicle's 120-volt nickel-cadmium battery pack for a 600-franc ($120) monthly charge. Considering that a gasoline-powered Peugeot 106 only costs about $13,000, the drivers pay a hefty premium.

They don't care. "You're far more relaxed when you drive," says Chantal Vetter, an extremely vocal champion of her EV. She has become something of a public cheerleader for PSA's EV, appearing in French and foreign television features about the test-drive program and playing prominently in PSA's EV literature.

PSA's EVs are remarkably well-finished. Interiors are cheerful, and standard equipment on the reasonably light, 2,315-lb. 1,050-kg) Peugeot 106 includes a sunroof, power windows and locks and power steering. Air conditioning, not a big priority in France, is not fitted.

PSA has surveyed its testers extensively. Some of the more interesting findings:

* More than 60% of their trips were of less than 5 km (3.1 miles).

* 93% of all recharging occured at home, and the average distance driven between recharges was 52 km (32.3 miles).

* On a scale of 1 to 10, the drivers scored overall satisfaction with the EV at 8.4; their favorite attributes were "silence," rated at 9.1, and "driving pleasure," also 9.1.

* Attributes most disliked: "passing acceleration," 5.7 on the 10 scale, and "heating" at 5.5.

Noel Bureau, deputy director of PSA's research and scientific affairs department, says the company hopes to build about 4,000 of the electric 106/AXs in 1995. The cars will go down the same production line as their internal-combustion cousins, which helps hold down costs, but Mr. Bureau says volumes would have to approach 40,000 to 50,000 electrics before the price could "even out" with conventional versions.

But PSA is hopeful a $5,000 government rebate will soon be approved. "We are confident there will be incentives," he adds.

La Rochelle's EV testers do enjoy some minor incentives from the city itself. Reserved EV parking spots are free, EDF has installed home-recharging stations, and several rechargers are located throughout La Rochelle.

Like La Rochelle, Strasbourg, which straddles the border of France and Germany, is a luscious, cozy city with canals and a towering old cathedral. But because of its valley location, Strasbourg is one of France's most polluted cities.

As a result, the "core" of Strasbourg has been closed to internal-combustion vehicles since 1992. In a roughly $200 million project to ease the city's pollution, EVs form a three-pronged approach.

First, increasingly larger areas of the city will be closed to all vehicles except EVs. A "time-share" EV system begins in 1998. It will allow drivers to scoot from station to station in city-owned EVs, using "smart" cards to check in and out and to handle payment. The city eventually plans to have 5,000 time-share EVs.

The city itself currently operates a sizable fleet of EVs, ranging from a almost laughably small 2-seater, a Microcar Lyra (made by eminent French boatmaker Jenneau, which has long built internal-combustion Microcar models) to a large cargo truck.

But Strasbourg's most ambitious EV project is a rental program started last June. For a modest 100 francs ($20) per half-day, anyone can rent a Lyra EV for inner-city travel -- even to Strasbourg's forbidden inner "core."

City officials say an average of four EVs have been rented daily since the program started, but more interest is expected as the rental program is better marketed. Strasbourg hopes frequent local renters become acclimated to EVs to help gear up for Strasbourg's big "push" to EVs in 1998.

Finally, cities like Paris and Lyon are developing parking strategies that they hope will encourage EV purchases by those living just outside the cities in the French equivalent of "suburbs."

If PSA's forecast that it will build up to 50,000 EVs yearly by 2003 (competitor Regie Renault likely has similar plans, beginning with an EV version of its popular Clio that enters production this summer) is accurate, then France's current infrastructure investments will prove remarkably prescient.

No, the French don't have any special EV technology. What they do have is a motivated, centralized attitude that says, "We believe we must explore this solution because it presents a potential betterment for our society."

Whether that attitude can extend to France's domestic automakers -- and government and industry can cooperate to create useful EVs and a viable EV market -- is an ongoing case study we in the U.S. might be well-advised to watch intently.

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