Electric Round Up From 2009 Detroit Auto Show; MINI, Fisker, Tesla, and Smart

Rex Roy

Maybe it's time for somebody to fire up the old Detroit Electric automobile company. That entity was the last major producer of electric-powered vehicles from Detroit, and its last car was delivered in 1939. With all the electric-car news from the 2009 Detroit Auto Show, maybe it's time for somebody to pull a Phoenix move and get the company started again.

As expected, MINI showed the MINI E. As you may know, BMW is leasing MINI Es to 500 Americans at a monthly rate of $800. In exchange, the lessees get to be guinea pigs, shaking down these heavily retrofitted MINIs to see how the electric drivetrains work for - and are received by - Americans. The MINI E was first shown at November's L.A. Auto Show, but MINI introduced it again in Detroit just in case somebody missed it the first time.

This is a company that knows how to make a visually stunning automobile that an enthusiast could want just on looks alone ... aside from its green performance. Detroit's Fisker stand held a Karma sedan and the new Karma S hard-top convertible (the S is for Sunset).

Both cars feature an aluminum space frame. The rear wheels are electrically driven. The plug-in battery pack holds enough juice for approximately 50 miles, and then an on-board generator fires up to provide electricity directly to the motor and to (only as needed) recharge the battery pack. The solar panels in the roof help off-set some power consumption.

Fisker's manager of powertrain and electrical engineering, Paul Boskovitch, calls Fisker's power management strategy "load following." Boskovitch notes, "We use the General Motor's 2.0-liter EcoTec engine because it's a perfect choice for running our generator. The engine is not mechanically connected to the drive wheels. We chose to use a 'load following' power strategy because it extends battery life, and directly connects the driver to the experience." Boskovitch went on to explain how when the engine engages the generator, the engine changes RPM to meet the driver's immediate power demands. Aural and tactile feedback help connect the driver to the car's performance, beyond simply moving a pedal-operated rheostat.

We had an opportunity to sit in the Karma, and found it snug, but rich and attractive. Batteries fill a large center tunnel that, for example in an old Corvette, would have housed a transmission and drive shaft. The feeling is sporty and high-tech ... just as it should be. But just like the Karma's Q-Drive powertrain economizes on amps and volts, to be comfortable inside the sports sedan, you'll need to watch your calories.

So far, the company has sold 100 Karma sedans that will be delivered by the end of 2009. Additional orders for sedans and the new Karma S were being written at Detroit. Eco-chic owners will see their new sedans in 2010, and the S in 2011. Prices for the sedan begin at $87,900, and the S at $106,000.

If we were spending 100 large, the Karma seems like the eco value of the sports car world.

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