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Electric Car Maker Plays Down Difficulties

As Big Three fight mandates to build smog-free autos, a small California company charges up for niche market

US Electricar is trying to achieve what Detroit says cannot be done: market viable electric vehicles.

The largest manufacturer of electric cars in the country, US Electricar has made 220 cars and light trucks to date, according to company vice president Gary Starr. This compares with much smaller numbers of electric cars manufactured under Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation experimental programs. Environmentalists are promoting electric cars as a means to reduce smog.

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Detroit's Big Three argue that electric cars cost too much and are not practical for the majority of consumers. In February, GM planned to test 50 electric Impact cars with consumers, but it has postponed the program for two months because of parts shortages. Critics say the postponement confirms GM's reluctance to develop an electric car.

Detroit is ``sticking its head in the sand,'' says Assemblyman Tom Bates (D) of Berkeley/Oakland, a strong advocate of electric cars. ``They can design a viable electric car. If they don't, someone else will.''

US Electricar, based in Sebastopol, Calif., may be that ``someone else,'' analysts say. The company buys Geo Prizms from GM dealers, pulls out the gas engines and other parts, then retrofits the subcompacts with electric motors.

These cars confound popular conceptions of electric cars as slow, low-horsepower vehicles. The car can travel 80 miles between charges, reach a top speed of 80 miles per hour, and accelerate from 0 to 50 miles per hour in 12 seconds, Mr. Starr says.

Cars can be recharged in about eight hours using normal 110V current, he says, and in about half that time using 220V. The batteries need to be replaced every 2 to 3 years at a cost of about $4,000. But Starr says electricity costs about half the price of gasoline, so consumers save money. Electric cars ``are perfect for a second family car,'' Starr says, ``and have a range well suited to commuters.''

But individuals must pay a hefty $40,000 for the subcompact. Even bulk purchases only bring the cost down to $30,000.

Consumers will never pay that much, argues Sam Leonard, director of GM's Automotive Emissions Department in Detroit. But he declines to disclose the price of GM's Impact.

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Starr argues that Detroit can manufacture cars much more economically than his small company, and prices should therefore drop dramatically. He foresees electric passenger cars selling at roughly 10-15 percent above the price of similar gasoline models.

In the meantime, US Electricar and other small manufacturers concentrate on selling to universities, government agencies, and utility companies that need smog-free vehicles to meet federal anti-pollution mandates.

Such mandates are driving the electrical vehicle industry. California requires that 2 percent of cars offered for sale in the 1998 model year must produce ``zero emissions.'' The mandate rises to 5 percent by 2001 and 10 percent in 2003. Twelve northeastern states and the District of Columbia have requested that the federal government impose similar regulations on them.

The Big Three are fighting the mandates.

Smaller companies such as US Electricar may develop niche markets, GM's Leonard says, but major manufacturers shouldn't be compelled to sell at a loss.

The California legislature will not end the mandates, however, Mr. Bates says, because in an election year ``no one wants to come out in favor of pollution.'' He terms the mandates highly successful because they have driven new technology, including improved batteries and a drive-train mechanism developed by Hughes Corporation now used to power US Electricar vehicles.

Auto and oil corporations, who also oppose the mandates, face powerful opposition from utilities and aerospace companies who will benefit from the development of electric cars. Electric power companies hope to have new customers charging up cars during off-peak hours. Some aerospace companies, hit by shrinking defense contracts, are developing experimental electric cars.

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz A.G. announced plans March 4 to build a two-passenger car in conjunction with Switzerland's SMH - maker of the Swatch watch. The ``Swatchmobile'' may be manufactured as an all-electric or an electric-gasoline hybrid car and is expected to cost $12,000.

If the Big Three ultimately choose not to manufacture their own cars, they can buy emission credits from US Electricar under a provision in the California mandate. Either way, Starr says, ``US Electricar comes out a winner.''

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