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Choices Coming Soon for Electric Car Shoppers

The large group of people interested in trying out an electric vehicle has never had many choices. There were small cars that didn't go far or fast -- so called "neighborhood electric vehicles", or NEVs. Small companies, like Commuter Cars, put out a few expensive cars per year. More recently, the supercharged Tesla Roadster came out, with a price tag nearing $100,000.

This long-standing situation will begin rapidly changing toward the end of this year. A trio of vehicles have recently been promised for the American market in 2010: The Coda, Nissan Leaf, and Think City. When these three go on sale, they'll join a set of previously-announced vehicles like the Mitsubishi iMiev and (plug-in hybrid) Chevy Volt, providing a sudden cornocupia of choice.

Here are the details on the three new entrants:

Coda Automotive -- The Coda is the product of parent company Miles Automotive, a southern California startup that has been working for several years on a vehicle based on a Chinese chassis. The idea is to stick with a mass-production aesthetic, keeping the car's body as cheap as possible. The Coda should have a range of 90-120 miles and top speed of 80 miles per hour.

Nissan Leaf -- Nissan hasn't done as well as larger Asian competitors like Toyota, but it appears ready to take a competitive risk with an all-electric competitor to the Prius. The Leaf, announced with much fanfare last last week, will be a hatchback with a 100-mile-plus charge and 80 mile per hour top speed.
Think City -- The future for Think briefly looked uncertain; the company declared bankruptcy late last year and was having little success raising money from private investors or its government in Norway. But the company is reportedly ready to exit bankruptcy and is looking for a place to build its car, the Think City, in America, through a subsidiary set up with venture capital investors. The City will have a 100 mile range and 65 mile per hour top speed.

There have been plenty of other promised electric vehicles; I listed 30 companies last year, and most still haven't produced a working car or truck. But the companies making promises are nowadays better funded and organized, and it's not hard to believe that more than a half-dozen of these vehicles will be in production next year.

Nissan's CEO, Carlos Ghosn, optimistically thinks electrics could take 10 percent of the market by 2020. That would be a rather good thing; electric cars are certainly the most elegant way to get most drivers off oil.

Biofuels won't scale to meet the world's needs, and produce an uncertain amount of emissions. Hydrogen, while offering low emissions like electric cars, requires more research and a great deal of expensive infrastructure. An electric vehicle, on the other hand, just needs a place to charge, and its charging needs can be synchronized to fit the patterns of renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

But batteries are expensive. The Coda, for instance, will cost over $40,000 even with its cheap body. The cost of replacing the Tesla Roadster's battery alone has been estimated at $30,000.

Nissan is considering offering a battery lease option for just this reason; companies can usually absorb high costs better, being able to spread them out over a period of years. If the battery is leased, the vehicle itself may have a price comparable to a standard car.