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When will EVs overcome short range, long charges and big price tags?

Ten years ago, a mass-produced car that could get people where they needed to go without contributing to global warming seemed like utopian technology, but in 2013 the battery electric vehicle (EV) is quite real.

Some say the electric car is the future of motoring, but when will that future arrive? How close have we come to going fully electric? Last year saw the introduction of several new models, providing more potential choices for customers. At the same time, sales remained modest, and some companies scaled back plans amid nagging concerns over range, charging times, and cost.

The electric car is still an uncertain prospect. EVs are gaining momentum but, as with any new technology, they will not gain universal acceptance overnight.

Tesla Model S Alpha Model Front AngleMore models

Judging by the number of available nameplates, the EV segment is exploding. Since the Nissan Leaf went on sale in December 2010, 11 new models have reached showrooms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Additional models are slated to hit the road in the next few years, while others have been released in limited numbers as part of test or car sharing programs.

The biggest news for the EV in 2012 was undoubtedly the launch of the Tesla Model S. This upstart from Silicon Valley set new standards in nearly every category: it’s easily the fastest EV available, is the only one that qualifies as a luxury car, and has the longest range. The overall package was so impressive that it won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year and Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year awards.

Tesla’s scheme of selling three battery pack sizes at three different prices could also be a model for future EVs. It’s a perfect analog to the current practice of putting smaller, less powerful engines in base model cars and having customers pay extra for an upgrade.

The Model S raised the bar, but it could soon be trumped by what Mercedes-Benz is working on. The SLS AMG Electric Drive has 740 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque, making it the most powerful car in Mercedes’ lineup. However, the SLS AMG ED will not be sold in the United States.

Luxury cars aside, the rest of the EV crop isn’t very bold. Most are small hatchbacks that have been converted from existing production cars, and most are not destined to break sales records.

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is the only EV attempting to compete with the Nissan Leaf on price, but its 66 hp and 62-mile range leave a lot to be desired. The Smart ForTwo Electric Drive returns this Spring, with a mere 47 hp (or 74 hp available in 20-second bursts).

Honda and Fiat will only sell a minimal number of the Fit EV and 500e, respectively, and only in California and Oregon. Toyota is only bringing 90 Scion iQ EVs to the U.S. as part of a car sharing program.

Toyota is also selling a limited run of 2,600 RAV4 EVs, powered by electric motors and battery packs from Tesla.

Coda Automotive launched its minimalist sedan last summer. Based on the Chinese Haifei Saibao, it offers a respectable 88-mile range, but Coda’s limited dealer network means finding one will be difficult. Another Chinese car, the BYD e6, could find its way into Hertz rental fleets as well.

Scion iQ EV front three-quarter viewCarmakers have doubts

The result is that, despite the proliferation of new models, few EVs are actually being sold. Nissan sold just 9,819 Leafs in 2012, less than half of the 20,000 units the company hoped to shift. This was the Leaf’s second full year in production and Nissan builds more EVs than any other company.

Other carmakers are skeptical of the electric car’s viability. At the 500e’s Los Angeles Auto Show launch, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said the only reason his company was building the lilliputian EV was to comply with California’s zero-emission regulations.

It’s the same story at Toyota, Public Affairs Manager Cindy Knight said. The California law and a desire to keep its options open are the main reasons behind the RAV4 and Scion iQ EVs.

“In our case, it’s more of a test than anything else,” Knight said. “We’re not projecting market commercialization.” Toyota will pursue hybrids, like its best-selling Prius, instead.

At the unveiling of the iQ EV (called Toyota eQ in Europe) at last fall’s Paris Motor Show, Toyota vice chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said EVs just aren’t up to snuff.

“The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge,” he said.

Audi also decided to cancel its R8 e-tron electric supercar, despite investing considerable treasure and sending the car to the Nürburgring for a record-breaking 8:09 lap.

Tesla Motors SuperchargerCoping with “range anxiety” and cost

Limited range, long charging times, and high costs continue to limit electric cars’ appeal, and thus make carmakers less likely to commit to large production runs. A Leaf can travel 79 miles on one charge, but a 2013 Altima with a 2.5-liter four cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission can travel 508 miles on one tank, according to the EPA.

With a 240-volt Level 2 charger, it takes about six hours to charge most EVs; a 120-volt Level 1 charger moves things into the realm of impracticality. Knowing that an electric car has a short range, and that draining the batteries will leave drivers stranded for hours, produces what analysts call “range anxiety.”

Some carmakers are trying to solve the problem by changing the plug. Tesla is installing a network of Supercharger stations across the country. The Supercharger can add 150 miles of range to the Model S’ 85-kWh battery (the biggest available) in 30 minutes.

Tesla has six Superchargers in California and two on the East Coast, allowing owners to drive from Boston to Washington, D.C. in a reasonable amount of time. Tesla wants to open 100 stations by 2015.

Nissan is building its own charging network. Its DC quick chargers are already sprouting up from Chicago to Texas, and the company plans to have 400 chargers operational in the next 12 to 18 months.

Wherever Leaf owners plug-in, an upgraded 6.6-kWh onboard charger (available on the Leaf SV and SL) can impart an 80 percent charge in four hours. Nissan will also try harder to sell the Leaf to Americans.

“The goal is continuing to expand the acceptance of electric vehicles,” Brendan Jones, Director of EV Marketing Sales and Strategy at Nissan, said. He said that if Nissan could get potential buyers to evaluate how much driving they actually do each day, more might find the Leaf acceptable.

2012 Nissan Leaf redConsumer acceptance

Like any new technology, buyers have to get used to the strengths and weaknesses of EVs before they’re willing to open their wallets. So far, though people seem to be enjoying EVs once they buy them.

“The amount of owner advocacy is… breathtaking on this vehicle,” Nissan’s Jones said, comparing Leaf fandom to the cultish following enjoyed by the company’s Z sports car. Many buyers who purchase a Leaf as a second car end up using it as their daily driver, Jones said.

However, for the electric car to become more than a niche product, the segment will have to continue to grow. For 2013, Nissan dropped the Leaf’s base price by $6,400 with a new base model, but EVs are still on the expensive side. At $28,800, the Leaf S costs as much as a loaded midsize sedan (before a $7,500 federal tax credit).

The electric car is currently in a state of flux. Carmakers are testing new models while deciding whether or not to actually put them on sale, while buyers are dealing with a car that throws out the rules of normal motoring.

So far, though, none of this experimentation has completely solved the major issues of range, charging time, and cost. If the segment continues to grow as rapidly as it has over the past two years, that could change, but we haven’t reached the electric future yet.