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

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.

As the company awaits loans backed by the Feds, the company’s smaller workforce sets about building the 1,500 Tesla Roadsters already on order. (Recent workforce cut backs said bye-bye to a quarter of the company.) Approximately 150 of these pure electric sports cars have been delivered as of the 2009 Detroit Auto Show. The two-seater costs $109,000 and promise 0-60 mph runs in under four seconds plus a range of 244 miles (based on tests with the EPA).

A Roadster Sport model runs $128,500 and cuts 0-60 mph times by 0.2 clicks to 3.7 seconds. Using tricks not unfamiliar to those who race model electric cars, the motor stators on the Sport are hand-wound, and the winding density is up, delivering lower resistance and greater motor torque.

Tesla is moving forward with their $49,900 Model S sedan. Although it did not the show the 2011-model sedan, there was talk in the booth about how the extra volume opportunity provided by the sedan would help make Tesla’s EV technology more affordable.

Other news out of Detroit is that Tesla would provide battery packs and chargers to Daimler AG for at least 1,000 eSmarts, an electrified smart for two.

Daimler AG/Smart
Smart showed the European version of their eSmart for two in Detroit. No mention was made of Tesla batteries, but the Tesla press conference was held the day following Smart’s.

What Smart did say about the $50,000 eSmart; it’s powered by lithium ion cells, and that it would become available in Europe some time in 2009. We’re already aware of EV-motoring electrification programs in Berlin and several Italian cities, and Daimler has participated in these nascent efforts by loaning small fleets of eSmarts to organizations in these municipalities.

Smart’s Detroit press release did announce a relationship between Daimler and Evonik, a German battery manufacturer. The two giant companies will partner in a battery development firm called Li-Tec.

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2009 smart fortwo

2009 smart fortwo

MSRP $16,990 Passion Convertible


33 City / 41 Hwy

Horse Power:

70 @ 5800


68 @ 4500