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Automakers hawk electric 'compliance cars' to meet rules

11:43 AM, May 9, 2013   |    comments
A Nissan Leaf charges in Portland, Ore. Nissan is one of the company's most serious about electric cars, and the Leaf has passed 25,000 in sales. (Rick Bowmer AP)
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LOS ANGELES (USA TODAY) -- Automakers are in the uncomfortable position of building mostly at a loss a class of small electric cars that garner a lot of attention but few sales just to satisfy rules imposed by one state, California.

As a result, they've acquired the name "compliance cars."

They include electric versions of such familiar models as the Chevrolet Spark, Honda Fit and Toyota RAV4.

Most are being produced primarily or solely to meet California's mandate that large automakers sell a percentage of zero-emission cars in order to sell traditional cars in the state. Hybrids and natural gas cars aren't considered good enough, and hydrogen fuel-cell cars are still a ways off, so battery cars are the quickest way to comply.

Though automakers have held splashy unveilings of these electrics, they often are selling by the hundreds in an industry where tens of thousands determine profitability.

Limiting losses on the cars, not making a profit, has become the carmakers' initial goal.

Though the automakers have taken different approaches to their electric cars, what the cars have in common is relatively high sticker prices compared to conventional versions, even after most buyers qualify for up to $7,500 in federal tax incentives and often substantial state or local government subsidies.

Thus, because automakers must not just build but also sell the cars to satisfy California's regulations, the automakers are adding loss-making discount sales and lease deals to ensure they can move the vehicles.

Last month, Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne said his company would limit production of the electric Fiat 500e because it will lose $10,000 on each. "Doing that on a large scale would be masochism to the extreme," he said.

The Fiat 500e, at $32,500 before subsidies, is almost twice the price of the base model of a conventional base Fiat 500, but the company has discount-lease and other plans to add to government subsides and cut the final cost.

Like many of the other such cars, the 500e will be sold only in California when it rolls out this summer.

The California rules apply to automakers that sell at least 60,000 vehicles a year in the state, which means the Detroit makers, plus Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

Analisa Bevan, sustainable-technology chief for California's Air Resources Board, says 10 other states also will adopt California's zero-emission mandate.

Hybrids, CNG cars and clean-burning gas engines don't count. "They don't get us far enough" to meet air quality and climate-change goals like electrics, she says.

The compliance cars stand in contrast to the electric Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S, which are being promoted nationwide with the goal of commercial success.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, whose company makes the Model S sedan says he doesn't feel threatened by the increased electric competition in California. "Those are very tiny sales."

Nissan says its happy with overall Leaf sales as it passes the 25,000 mark since its late 2011 launch. "The adoption curve for EVs is accelerating, and we're seeing tremendous interest not only on the West Coast but in a number of new strongholds," says Erik Gottfried, electric vehicle marketing director.

Some automakers are trying to straddle the line. Ford says, for instance, that its $39,200 Focus electric is being sold at select dealers in all states except Wyoming and West Virginia. Even at that, Ford sold 566 through April this year, compared with 84,455 conventional Focuses.

Toyota only plans to make 2,600 RAV4 EV using an electric powertrain supplied by Tesla. Honda will make only 1,100 Fit EVs over three years and will only lease them.

But automakers balk at the term "compliance car," because they say engineers went far beyond what is needed to comply.

"We could have brought a bare-bones compliance car to market. We worked with Tesla to put out a very versatile and fun-to-drive vehicle," says Toyota spokeswoman Jana Hartline.

For the most part, automakers have tried to create quality electric cars even though they knew sales would be small, says John Voelcker, editor of GreenCarReports.com.

Some view them as pilot projects for the electric car they believe they'll have to build as federal rules tighten through 2025. California estimates that by then, 15.4% of vehicles on its roads will be zero-emission.

"The phrase 'compliance car' may carry with it the notion of sort of a minimal effort," Voelcker says.

"The engineers who develop these cars are proud of what they built," he says.

Here are some of the most important electric cars, with sticker pricing before delivery charges:

Ford Focus Electric

Sales started in California, but Ford says it can be bought at select dealers in 48 states now. Starting price is $39,200 before delivery charges, or it can be leased in many states at $249 a month. It gets the gas mileage equivalent of 105 miles per gallon.

Chevrolet Spark EV

When it goes on sale this summer in California and Oregon, Spark EV will have a rated range of 82 miles and efficiency of 119 MPGe. Price hasn't been announced.

Fiat 500e

Going on sale this summer, the electric version of the subcompact 500 is expected to be rated at 116 MPGe and get 87 miles per charge. It will be sold only in California and priced at $32,500 but has a subsidized lease deal that puts the monthly payment on par with the gas version.

Nissan Leaf

Leaf stands out as not only the first modern electric car from a major automaker, but also one that was intended to be sold in all states, not only in a few for regulatory reasons. It's priced at $28,800 and gets 115 MPGe.

Toyota RAV4 EV

The $49,800 SUV is the only one of the bunch, with the powertrain supplied by Tesla. Sold only in California. Some 2,600 are being built through 2014. It has a range of 103 miles and gets 76 MPGe.

Honda Fit EV

The Fit EV is sold in California, Oregon and New York. Some 1,100 are being made over three years. It isn't sold but only leased for $389 a month. It gets 118 MPGe.

Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY

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