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European Manufacturers Get In High Gear With Electric Cars With BC-Electric Cars-Glance

March 29, 1992

GENEVA (AP) _ From boxy buses and quiet pickup trucks to bubble-like golf carts, electric cars are the transport of tomorrow.

Or are they?

Technology for electric vehicles is still in its infancy. Battery-powered cars don’t go very far or fast, and they cost a lot to buy. Chemicals used in the batteries are hazardous.

Nevertheless, like their American counterparts, European automakers have plunged into developing electric cars, which they showed off at this month’s International Auto Show in Geneva.

The companies are spurred partly by environmental altruism but also by the reality that by 1998, California will require 2 percent of all major manufacturers’ vehicles sold in the state to be free of tailpipe emissions.

The quota will rise to 10 percent by the year 2003.

Like their American and Japanese counterparts, European carmakers are studying battery-operated cars that can be recharged on a household current.

- PSA Peugeot Citroen, a leader in electric vehicle research, has already sold some 300 of its Forgons to France’s national electric power company and to city governments. The Forgons are station wagon-like trucks.

By 1995 Peugeot will market electric versions of its smallest cars, the Peugeot 106 and Citroen AX, which will have a range of 75 miles and a top speed of 56 mph. The battery, rechargeable overnight, would be rented for a monthly fee that’s comparable to the cost of gasoline.

″We anticipate volume sales, and hope eventually to sell 50,000 a year,″ said Hugues Dufour, a spokesman for Peugeot Citroen, Europe’s third-largest automaker. ″We’re aiming for the same price, or even lower, as a conventional 106 or AX, minus the battery.″

- Volkswagen’s Chico has a range of more than 62 miles with its ″nickel- metal hydride″ battery, which is more powerful than conventional lead acid or sodium sulfide batteries.

The Chico, like many electric cars, is not yet ready for commercial sale. But Volkswagen, Europe’s largest carmaker, has sold more than 100 electric versions of the popular Golf, mainly to city governments and public organizations.

Two sodium-sulfur batteries give the Golf a range of 125 miles, said Adolf Kalberlah, VW’s manager for electric propulsion.

- Fiat, Europe’s No. 2 automaker, has sold some 350 Panda Electras in the past two years, mostly to local authorities and utility firms.

An electric version of Fiat’s tiny but beloved Cinquecento is now being made available. With a 44-mile range, it’s suited for limited city driving, though nickel-cadmium batteries can extend the range.

But the electric Cinquecento is 2.7 times more expensive than the standard model, and demand is so low the car is virtually being built by hand, Fiat officials said.

For all their efforts, some of the automakers are less than enthusiastic about electricity’s potential. They concede the cars don’t go as far as most drivers would like without recharging the battery.

″California needs ranges so large that people can’t do anything with Golf lead acid batteries - they’re useless in America,″ said Kalberlah.

″We don’t see a future for an electric city car,″ Mercedes-Benz electric car engineer Joachim Kaden bluntly told Autocar and Motor magazine in January. ″That would create a two-class society and is not a feasible solution.″

In California, ″They can force us to sell electric cars, but nobody can tell people to buy them,″ Kaden told the magazine.

But even Mercedes is forging ahead in the electric car market. The company fitted its 190 model with an experimental battery that takes 14 hours to charge - and adds $35,700 to the car’s already hefty price.

Rival BMW has developed the battery-run E1, a little station wagon with a sodium-sulfur battery. But no need to hold onto your hat when you floor the accelerator: The E1 goes from zero to 50 mph in 18 seconds, an eternity by internal combustion standards. It nevertheless has a respectable top speed of 75 mph, with a range of up to 162 miles at lower speeds.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese are forging ahead as well. At the Geneva show Mazda showed off its experimental HR-X, which bears a hydrogen rotary engine, while Nissan displayed its FEV (future electric vehicle), which can charge fully in 15 minutes.

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