Less than a year ago, electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids seemed ready for a mass takeoff, with the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt leading the charge down the runway.
Although early sales have been disappointing, they're not stopping automakers — from big, bullish Nissan to tiny underdogs like Coda — from sticking electric motors into cars.
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Americans bought 19,874 plug-in cars in 2011, according to LMC Automotive. The research firm expects the number to surge to roughly 70,000 this year, to nearly 170,000 in 2013 and to a healthy 250,000 by 2015.
About a dozen new plug-in models are scheduled to reach showrooms this year, and another dozen in 2013. Whether or not they become common, some intriguing vehicles will arrive in the next two years. Here are some models to keep an eye on.
This Ohio company plans to yank the powertrains from Jeep Grand Cherokees and Mercedes M-Class SUVs and replace them with batteries and electric motors, good for a 100-mile range. Set for this fall, AMP's Jeep and Mercedes EVs start around $58,000 and $80,000, respectively.
An electrified version of the R8 sports car, featured in the "Iron Man" movies, the e-tron is to go into production late this year. It will have four electric motors, one at each wheel. With power from a big 53-kilowatt-hour battery, a prototype developed 313 horsepower and 502 pound-feet of torque. Expect a price well into six figures.
The ActiveE, an all-electric version of the 1 Series coupe that is being leased to 700 American customers, is serving as a test bed for BMW's first full-production electric car, the i3. The i3, a city car with a body of lightweight carbon fiber, is to reach dealerships in late 2013 and early 2014.
It will first be offered as a pure EV, with a plug-in hybrid version to follow. Then, in 2014, BMW will offer Hollywood celebrity bait with the futuristic i8 plug-in hybrid, which has already had a supporting role in "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol."
To arrive next winter, the eye-catching front-drive ELR adopts the hybrid approach of the Volt: It covers short distances on battery power, and then switches to a gas engine to generate electricity and extend the range.
This Los Angeles-based underdog plans an international approach: importing partly built Hafai Saibo sedans from China, and then installing batteries and electronics in Northern California. For prices of $38,145 or $40,795, buyers will get a car with a range of 125 or 150 miles. The first cars rolled out last month.
Though a long shot for U.S. showrooms, the XD — a Croatian-built cutie with gullwing doors and an unusual three-passenger layout — was a hit at the Los Angeles auto show in November.
Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat and Chrysler, complained last year that Fiat would lose $10,000 on every EV it sold. Still, Chrysler is engineering the Fiat 500 EV for limited production this year, at a price that may approach $40,000.
After long delays, the $103,000 Karma plug-in hybrid is slowly reaching customers from the factory in Finland where it is assembled. The California startup says its voluptuous sedan can cover 300 miles, the first 50 on battery power. The Karma can reach 60 mph in less than six seconds, with a boost from a General Motors-sourced four-cylinder gas engine.
Three plug-in cars are coming this year. The Focus Electric will be on sale in 18 markets (including Washington) by year end. The car's trump card is a powerful 6.6-kilowatt onboard charger, giving the 123-horsepower Ford a full charge in four hours. It starts at $39,995 and has a 100-mile range.
The Ford C-Max people mover will be offered as both a conventional hybrid and, this fall, as a plug-in version called the Energi. A 2-liter gas engine and electric motor supply 185 horsepower, with recharging in as little as 3.5 hours. Ford says the C-Max Energi will beat the Volt's gasoline equivalent rating of 93 mpge and have a total driving range of 500 miles.
Finally, Ford plans to sell an Energi plug-in hybrid version of its 2013 Fusion alongside the gasoline and hybrid models, starting next winter.
An electric version of the Fit hatchback arrives this summer. Just 1,100 will be available, strictly on the West and East coasts, with a $399 monthly lease. The Fit adopts the 123-horse electric motor from the FCX Clarity hydrogen-fuel-cell car; a 20-kilowatt-hour battery will provide roughly 75 miles of range.
In fall 2013, Honda will offer an advanced plug-in hybrid system on its next-generation Accord. A 2-liter Atkinson cycle engine will join two electric motors, one to charge the battery and one to propel the car. The plug-in Accord is said to be capable of traveling 10 to 15 miles on electricity at up to 62 mph, or to blend gas and electric power.
Infiniti's two-seat, rear-drive sports car will combine electric power with a mid-mounted 1.3-liter gas engine. The car adopts the Volt's extended-range format rather than the all-electric approach championed by Nissan.
Like other electric supercars, the SLS AMG E-Cell could pluck the consciences and wallets of the rich when it comes to market with a projected price of $200,000. The E-Cell would crank out 526 horsepower through four 12,000-rpm electric motors; its projected top speed of 155 mph could set a production EV record.
Mitsubishi's tiny four-seat i city car is the EPA's new fuel-economy champ, rated at the gasoline equivalent of 126 mpge on the highway and 99 in town. It is also, at about $30,000, the most affordable highway-capable electric car. With 63 horsepower, the i is slow and somewhat crude, with a range of 62 miles. It's on sale now on the West Coast.
A jaw-dropper for its design and its $845,000 price, the 918 Spyder hybrid promises a top speed of 198 mph, fuel economy exceeding 70 mpg and lower carbon emissions than a Prius. Between its race-bred V-8 and electric motors, the plug-in Porsche kicks out roughly 730 horsepower and can go up to 25 miles on electricity. The showroom version will be unveiled in Frankfurt in 2013.
Tesla is seeking to justify its federal loans with the Model S, a striking electric sport sedan that claims an unmatched range of 160 to 300 miles, depending on the battery. Tesla offers 40-, 60- and 85-kilowatt-hour versions from $57,400 to $105,400. The power-packed version offers an unlimited battery warranty and 0-to-60 mph acceleration of 4.4 seconds. Deliveries are to start this year.
For $32,760 to start, the new Prius plug-in hybrid can travel 15 miles on battery juice alone and can top 50 mpg when its gas engine comes into play. A similar version of the Prius v wagon arrives this fall. Toyota will also start production of the RAV4 EV late this year.