Zero-emission electric car drives into smog of doubt

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Los Angeles

Was the sexy little coupe that rolled silently into the spotlights at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show really the salvation of the city of smog?

With a flourish, General Motors unveiled what it promised as the first mass-production electric car for the American market: a two-seater christened the EV1. It will go on sale at 25 dealerships in California and Arizona this autumn.

The whisper-quiet, zero-emission car has improved the odds that electric vehicles will finally make serious inroads in the US. GM executives called it the wave of the future, with the company's chairman, John Smith, describing it as a signal of "our commitment to technological leadership and our commitment to environmental stewardship".

But there was a certain note of scepticism yesterday, particularly among observers from the often conservative US car industry, who wondered who would buy the car. It is priced at more than $30,000 (pounds 20,000) and has a normal range of only 60 to 70 miles before requiring a three-hour charge.

California desperately needs electric cars, environmentalists say. The California Air Resources Board has adopted a clean air plan that counts on 70 per cent of all vehicles on the road being "zero-polluting" by 2010. But there remains the suspicion that the EV1 is little more than a fancy fig leaf offered in return for the board's recent decision to back off the first step of that plan - a demand that by 1998, 2 per cent of all cars offered for sale would be exhaust-free - a target car makers have insisted is impossible.

GM has spent an estimated $350m (pounds 230m) developing the EV1. The other Big Three car makers, Chrysler and Ford, have promised their own models by 1997. The company would not say how many cars it planned to put on the market, but analysts expect the figure to be only a few thousand.

The best-selling vehicle last year, a Ford pick-up truck, sold nearly 700,000. And the biggest story of the US car market recently has been the surge in sales of the gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive "sport-utility" vehicles.

The EV1 is powered by 26 lead-acid batteries with a maximum speed of about 80 miles an hour. Its maximum range of 90 miles drops dramatically in very cold weather to about 25 miles. Targeted as a second-car for shopping or commuting, its design is based on the Impact, a prototype GM first unveiled in 1990.

There are tax breaks on the car's purchase price, and air quality management officials are offering a $5,000 rebate to the first 1,200 customers in Los Angeles. The local electricity company, Southern California Edison, promised an initial network of just 18 recharging stations at shops and train stations. Owners will need an expensive recharging unit and face the cost of replacing the batteries at 25,000 to 50,000 miles.

None the less, insisted Ronnie Kun, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defence Council in Los Angeles, "it is great that finally after years and years of delay GM has finally made a firm commitment with a firm date".

"Its a very, very sleek and impressive product,'' he added. ''In Los Angeles, the average commute to work is something like 12 miles each way. With an electric car, you don't use any juice when you idle. There are plenty of people who would buy this car.''