Why am I underwhelmed by Chevy's new electric car? After all, I've wanted GM to follow up the Volt with a pure battery car forever, and have publicly mused that the company was dragging its heels on following up the groundbreaking EV1, which died an ignominious death in 2003. But the plug-in version of the Chevrolet Spark minicar planned for a 2013 launch is an exceptionally cautious program, destined to put only about 2,000 cars on the road — mostly in California. And we'll never see it here in Connecticut.
GM is doing the bare minimum to get California zero emission credits. The company isn't risking much capital or prestige here. Even last week's announcement was remarkably low-key. "The Spark EV offers customers living in urban areas who have predictable driving patterns or short commutes an all-electric option," said Jim Federico, a Chevrolet global vehicle chief engineer for EVs. If you meet those relatively narrow criteria, have we got a car for you.
GM said it would incorporate information from the EV demonstration programs it has conducted in such exotic locales as Korea (the Cruze-based EV), India (the related Beat EV) and Shanghai (the Sail EV). The Spark's nanophosphate lithium-ion batteries will be from A123 Systems.
Ford seems more enthusiastic about its electric Focus program, but it too is making very conservative volume estimates. Chrysler isn't even trying — after announcing an electric version of the Fiat 500, it's said hardly anything about the car.
GM continues to see far more promise in plug-in hybrids than in battery electrics. The company has announced a luxury version of the Volt called the ELR, and it's toying with a crossover edition. The Volt is the platform that keeps on giving; don't expect a similar GM family of battery cars, at least not yet.
According to Green Car Reports, the battery Spark isn't a 50-state car, as the Volt will by the end of the year. It will be targeted mostly at California, and possibly at the 13 states that follow its emission laws.
If you're not familiar with the Spark, that's because it's currently sold only in Europe and Asia. It's coming to the U.S. as a gas car next year. The battery version will follow soon after, billed as a city car. That's an increasingly popular way of looking at Evs — as limited-range vehicles for in-city travel. The BMW i3 is known as the "megacity vehicle," and Toyota's 2012 Scion-based iQ electric (with just 50 miles per charge) is also for that market. Both Audi (the Urban Concept) and Volkswagen (Nils) showed city cars at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
My problem with the urban EV deal has to do with charging. Yes, sub-100-mile range suggests a bopping around the neighborhood, not taking a lot of range-robbing highway trips. But plugging in will actually be much easier in the suburbs, where people have garages.
Don't get me wrong, it's good that GM is finally fielding another battery EV. But this is dipping a toe in the water, not jumping in with both feet. It's somewhat understandable given the uncertainties of the market, but something bolder would have been nice.