While internal combustion engine vehicles from China seem to still be a few years away, at least four companies are preparing to sell electric cars imported from China soon. Three of them are small -- really small.
These companies are automotive outsider, entrepreneurs who hope to carve out an EV niche before the big boys can lock up the market. However, the auto industry is littered with the remains of startups that tried to carve out a niche for themselves.
Without further ado, here's a look at the players and their products.
Wheego Electric Cars, a startup based in Atlanta, may have the best shot at survival. Perhaps as early as this month, the company will introduce a minicar called the Life.
The two-seater is only 118 inches long, with a 100-mile range and a top speed of 65 mph. The Life borrows its body shell from the Noble, a mini-car built by Shijiazhuang Shuanghuan Automobile Co.
The Noble has had its share of controversy. A few years ago, Daimler sued to block the sale of the Noble in Germany, claiming that it was a copy of the Smart.
In the U.S., Wheego renamed it the Whip and sold about 300 units. Then it decided to upgrade the vehicle's performance. Wheego, a small "virtual" company with no manufacturing resources of its own, lined up suppliers to build its car.
The new version features lithium-ion batteries from Flux Power, a small supplier based in Vista, California, plus an electric motor from Hi Performance, a company headquartered in Ontario, California. To pass U.S.safety standards, Wheego added driver and passenger air bags, then reinforced the B-pillar and roof.
But Wheego says its car still needs to pass the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's emissions regulations. (Since the LiFe doesn't have any emissions, one would think this is a no-brainer.)
With a sticker price of $32,995, the Wheego Life is not cheap, although a $7,500 federal incentive and various state subsidies could bring its cost down. But why would anyone buy a Wheego Life rather than a Nissan Leaf?
The Leaf is a great car, responds Susan Nicholson, Wheego's vice president of corporate communications, but, "the Leaf is sold out. If you want to own an electric car in 2011, you don't have a lot of options. And we've got a safe, high-quality offering."
Down in Sarasota, Florida, you'll find Bill Fisher zipping around town in a toy-like electric car that he calls the Smile-E. The two-seater was built by Liuzhou Wuling Motors Co., a company based in southwest China.
Fisher, founder of Amasia International Automotive, wants to import the Smile-E and sell them through a couple of distributors.
Powered by lead acid batteries, the car a daily range of 37 miles and a top speed of 25 mph. While those are modest specs, the lead acid batteries don't cost much. Fisher claims he can keep the price down to $10,000 or so -- a cheap alternative to the Leaf or Chevy Volt.
Fisher says the Smile-E is best suited for trips to the mall or short hauls around the retirement community. Fisher often drives the Smile-E to the market three miles from his house. "It's fun, and it's convenient," he says. "Every time I come out of the grocery store, I get questions. If a Ferrari goes by, I'll get more looks than the Ferrari. I guarantee it."
So far, Fisher has sunk $500,000 into his venture, which he manages out of his home. One might be tempted to conclude that Fisher is pursuing a pipe dream. But it's useful to remember that his supplier, Wuling Motors, has street cred in China.
This year, Wuling's joint venture with General Motors and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. will sell more than a million small commercial vehicles in China. The partnership's Sunshine minivan is China's top-selling light vehicle, and Fisher has sold a couple of hundred Sunshines in the United States.
But Fisher says he's betting on the Smile-E. "We are close to breaking even," he says. "Once we go into production with the Smile-E, we'll be over the top."
While Fisher pursues the low end of the U.S. EV market, Coda Automotive is aiming at the premium market. The Santa Monica, Californiastartup displayed its five-seat Coda sedan last month at the Los Angelesauto show. Flanked by the Smart exhibit in a corner of the South Hall, Coda displayed a lone Civic-sized EV sedan.
Unlike the exuberant Life or Smile-E, the Coda would not draw a second glance on the streets of Santa Monica. And that's how the Coda's creators like it. The vehicle is supposed to be perceived – and used – as if it were an ordinary compact sedan, with few performance concessions demanded by its lithium iron phosphate battery pack. Indeed, the Coda's top speed and range, 80 mph and up to 120 miles, are superior to its smaller Chinese rivals.
But its $44,900 price tag may cause a few gasps. Coda Automotive is charging a hefty sum for a vehicle built on an aging Mitsubishi chassis produced by a Chinese automaker, Changan Automobile Group. Granted, Coda has upgraded the chassis, but still.
Coda's plans call for Changan to produce the chassis, while top-tier suppliers like Nexteer, Delphi, Lear and BorgWarner will deliver key components like the steering system, inverter, charger and transaxle. In a factory north of San Francisco, a subcontractor will fit the vehicle with an electric motor and lithium-ion batteries. Customers will shop for the Coda in Apple-style stories located in Californiashopping malls. Coda won't set up any conventional dealerships.
Coordinating all this would be a tall order even for an established automaker. So it isn't surprising that a startup like CODA is showing signs of stress. The car was supposed to be launched in December, but now it's been delayed until the last half of 2011. As if that weren't enough, the company's CEOand sales chief abruptly departed this fall.
But the company did score a victory last month when Hertz Corp. and Enterprise Rent-A-Car each announced plans to purchase small fleets of Codas for use as rental vehicles.
Why should anyone buy a Coda rather than a Leaf or Volt? Company spokesman Matt Sloustcher says EV enthusiasts "are looking to new brands for leadership. We are 100 percent focused on electric cars."
Of the companies importing Chinese EVs to America, only one – BYDAuto – is a traditional automaker. Last January, BYDannounced plans to market its e6 crossover EV in southern Californiaby the end of 2010.
However, the company has delayed the EV's introduction until next year. Critics have speculated that BYD– a leading producer of lithium ion batteries for laptops and cell phones – has encountered manufacturing problems with the EV's battery pack.