Electric Cars Everywhere at Auto Show

Rolls-Royce 102EX Experimental.

It’s not a new situation by any means, but the floor of the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show is filled with electric cars. From ones you can buy right now to concepts that are still years away, cars powered by kilowatts instead of combustion are everywhere.

Some we’ve seen before, like the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Ford Focus EV, the latter having been promised for some time. Also scheduled to go on sale next year (actually, available for lease only) is BMW’s ActiveE, which is a plug-in electric version of the company’s 1-Series coupe.

Right behind it in the BMW stand is a pair of wild see-through concept cars, the i3 and i8. Both are headed to production eventually, the i3 coming soonest. That one is a pure plug-in with room for four people, while the i8 is a hybrid electric that’s more of a high-performance sport coupe. Look for the i3 in 2013 and the i8 a few years afterward.

In another hall, Ford is really on an electric car roll. In addition to the Focus EV (on sale early next year for about $40,000 before rebates), they’re also showing off the Transit Connect Electric as well as the C-Max Electric. Their first electrified vehicle, the Escape Hybrid, has now been discontinued. The all-new 2013 Escape will not offer the hybrid system.

Even high-end auto makers are embracing electric-powered vehicles on some level. Jaguar has a gorgeous concept car in its booth that’s essentially the next XK Coupe. Glowing in red letters at the back of the interior is the word “hybrid,” signifying the car’s power system: a twin-turbo V6 engine with electric hybrid assist. By the time this car goes into production, the hybrid drive system could definitely be a reality.

But my favorite electric car of all? The Rolls-Royce 102EX, which is a concept car based on the Phantom sedan. No, you can’t buy one yet, but like every other car company, Rolls has to look at the future. A plug-in electric car actually makes sense for this company if you think about it.

During the press preview of the show, I was given a demonstration of the 102EX, starting with a peek under the hood. There beneath the long “bonnet” (as they say in the U.K.) is a series of batteries and charging circuitry. Those big batteries send juice to the twin electric motors at the rear, which combine to produce 293kW of power, which calculates out as pretty close to the gasoline engine’s output.

After being shown the hardware, I got to slip behind the wheel for a quick spin around the neighborhood. Everything in this car is very conventional. You hit a start button that engages power, slip the selector lever into drive, and you’re off. The car whooshes away from the curb in short order, not unlike the way gasoline-powered Rolls-Royces have for decades.

A few people scratched their heads when I relayed my experience to them, thinking a huge, heavy car like that is the wrong type of vehicle to build as an electric. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I’ll tell you why.

First off, the cost of building electric cars is very high in these early days due mainly to the expense of the batteries needed to power them. So in the case of the Rolls, you can first subtract the price of the huge V12 engine that normally propels the car. I’m not sure how much each V12 costs the company to build, but I think it’s safe to say you could buy a lot of battery cells for whatever that amount is.

The second reason a Rolls-Royce EV makes sense is because many of these cars don’t actually travel very far from home. A lot of them in places like Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, and other moneyed enclaves just stay around town and really never really get out on road trips. The estimated range of the 102EX is about 200 km, or roughly 120 miles. That should be plenty for several days or a week’s worth of lunch and spa appointments.

A few years ago it was unusual to see a car at the auto show with a plug on the side. Today, cars with batteries are everywhere about the halls of the convention center. And in ten or so years down the road, there will likely be many more of them.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz.

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