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Urban Chic in the Windy City The Magnificent Mile goes Electric

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SEE ALSO: Electric Vehicles-Solution or Diversion?

By Larry Nutson
Senior Editor, Chicago Bureau
The Auto Channel

The 103rd Chicago Auto Show, the country’s largest in terms of space, brought a variety of cars and trucks to center-stage for 2011. From the muscular 550HP Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to the eco-friendly Chevrolet Volt cars and trucks for every woman and man were on display and some were even available for test rides.

Appropriate to the Windy City’s urban environs, the show is chock full of electric cars. From the Chevrolet Volt to the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi I-MiEV, smart Fortwo, Volvo Electric C30, Ford Focus EV as well as the Ford Transit Connect Electric the air was electric with battery-powered cars.

Chevrolet set up an indoor test track for ride-along drives in the Chevy Volt. Within the display, car battery charging stations gave show visitors a first hand look at “refueling”. The Volt is on sale now in select markets around the U.S, and new plans are in place to quickly expand to other urban areas. About 750 Chevy dealers are set up to sell the Volt and an additional 750 are trained in servicing this new car.

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Nissan’s Leaf was shown in static display. According to Nissan 20,000 orders have been received in a pre-sale program and these potential buyers have been screened to help make sure that a Leaf will correctly serve their car needs. In comparison to the Volt that uses a range-extender gas engine to charge a depleted battery, when the Leaf’s battery charge runs down, your driving is ended until you recharge. Nissan is doing a slow production launch with most new Leafs delivered by the summer.

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Ford’s 2012 Focus EV will go on sale in various U.S. cities including Chicago by the end of this year. Powered by a lithium-ion battery it has an expected 100 mile range. A top speed of 84mph will allow suburbanites to hit the freeway for that into-the-city commute. A MyFord Mobile app for smart phones will allow consumers to see charging status, initiate charging and heat or cool the interior while still plugged-in to the charging grid.

The 2011 Ford Transit Connect Electric is among the first electric vehicles from this American automaker. Based on a design sold in several worldwide markets, Transit Connect Electric can seat up to 5 passengers. It has sliding side-rear doors and two side-hinged rear doors. It’s front wheel drive and powered by a 74-horsepower electric motor and a 28-kilowatt-hour battery pack. Ford claims a range of 80 miles, a top speed of 75 mph, and a charge time of 6-8 hours on a 240-volt circuit.

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The all-electric Smart Fortwo is being readied for mass production in 2012. Driving range is expected to be around 85 miles coming from a 20-kW motor and a 16.5kWh li-ion battery. One advantage of the Smart is its short overall length that has enabled some reduced fees for parking in various cities and airports. The electric models are available only on a 4-year lease starting in October 2010, and will only be available in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and the cities of Portland, Oregon; San Jose; Orlando; and Indianapolis.

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The 2011 Volvo C30 is a 2-door hatchback and the Swedish automaker's smallest car. It comes as no surprise then that it is the model chosen by Volvo to be electrified in a three year test program involving 250 vehicles. The 2012 Volvo C30 Electric features a front-wheel system driven by an 82 kilowatt (110hp) motor capable of accelerating the car from 0-62 mph in 10.5 seconds. Top speed is a little over 80 mph

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Mitsubishi’s “i MiEV” is an electric vehicle based on the gasoline-driven 660cc “i” minicar. Power will come from a 16kWh li-ion battery riving a 47kW electric motor. Driving range is expected to be around 100 miles with a top speed of 80 mph.

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Also very urban, although not yet electric -- but one is promised-- is the new 2012 Fiat 500. A complete Fiat display with an original bright yellow 1970 Fiat 500 showed off this new entry in Fiat’s first appearance at the Chicago show this century and the return of this Italian brand to North America. Now part of the Chrysler Group, the assembled in Mexico Fiat 500 is a 2-door hatchback and priced starting at $15,500. A convertible is due in early-calendar 2011. Pop, Sport, and Lounge are the three trim levels. A 101-horsepower 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic does the powering. Not striped down, features include air conditioning, power windows, door locks and mirrors, and cruise control as standard. The full contingent of safety features include ABS, traction control, antiskid system, curtain-side airbags, front-side airbags, and a driver-knee airbag.

According to reports, Chicago has awarded a $1.9 million contract to San Diego, California-based 350 Green LLC to install 280 electric vehicle charging stations in Chicago and surrounding suburbs by the end of 2011. Electric vehicle manufacturers plan to introduce EVs first in cities with an extensive charging station infrastructure. The 350 Green charging stations will offer either plugging in to a quick-charge providing a full charge in 30 minutes or a 220-volt Level 2 charge which takes 3 to 8 hours. EV owners will be offered either a monthly subscription or a per-use pricing to pay for the recharge.

Industry experts view the development and expansion of battery powered vehicles to be happening in three phases. Phase 1 took place in the first decade of this century and dealt with getting electrification into the vehicle. Phase 2 will be from now to about 2020 and mostly deal with the installation and expansion of charging station infrastructure and the electricity grid. Vehicle development will continue. In Phase 3 we can expect the refinement of EVs with battery technology, the use or not of range extender engines and driving range needs being better addressed.

Urban living is increasingly popular at two ends of the demographic spectrum. The young Gen-Y Millenials and the retiring Baby-boomers will have a wide array of very suitable, eco-friendly and space efficient cars to choose from.

© Larry Nutson