Sparking back to life Once declared dead, the electric car returns. Automakers have them in the works, and the zippy Tesla leads the way.

Posted: March 23, 2009

On a warm day with the top down, Steven Mortazavi was breezing along West River Drive when his eyes locked on the rearview mirror.

A Philly police car was on his tail. Mortazavi wasn't speeding, but the cop followed him into a parking lot, paused behind him, and then - whew! - moved on.

"He is so dying to give me a ticket," said Mortazavi, an Allentown pain-management physician.

It had to be the car: Bright red. Sleek and curvy. Built for speed, it can accelerate from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds and top out at 125 miles an hour.

All on an electric motor.

And all for, oh, $109,000.

Mortazavi came to Philadelphia this month to test-drive a Tesla, the Silicon Valley sports car that may well be the first production electric car to not just get onto U.S. highways, but stay there.

The nation has been down this road before, as explored in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?

But now it's being reborn, in a dozen ways. Virtually every major auto manufacturer has a version in the pipeline.

Proponents see electric vehicles as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil while countering air pollution and climate change.

Energy experts also see them acting as an array of mini storage sites for electricity, with two-way plugs potentially able to feed energy back into the electrical grid during times of peak demand.

President Obama has said he wants to get a million plug-ins on the nation's roads by 2015. Thursday in California, he toured a U.S. Department of Energy electric car test site and announced $2.4 billion in federal funding for vehicle and battery manufacturing.

The cars can't really be called emission-free because they are powered by electric power plants that have emissions. But several studies have shown electric cars are cleaner than conventional gas-powered ones because there are more restrictions on industry's "long tailpipes" than on the short tailpipes of cars.

The most recent progression toward electric vehicles started with hybrids - not electric per se, but close.

GM is on deck next, promising a plug-in hybrid called the Chevy Volt in 2010. The four-seater will cost up to $40,000 and will go 40 miles on a charge before a small gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the batteries.

At least seven others - Saturn, Toyota, Chrysler, Ford, Audi, Hyundai, and Volkswagen - have plug-in hybrids in the works.

Full-electric vehicles are promised from BMW, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Chrysler, which is working on a minivan, a Jeep, and a sports car.

Most are due from 2010 to 2013, so prices have not yet been announced.

Eight small entrepreneurial companies are going all-electric, and a Jetson-like three-wheeler, the Aptera 2e, is due this year, ballparked at $25,000 to $45,000.

"Everyone is saying they're going to add electricity in some way, shape, or form," said Jay Friedland, legislative director for the nonprofit advocacy group Plug-In America. "We are absolutely, positively rooting for them."

The big question, however, is whether all these big plans will come to fruition. A prototype is one thing. A mass-market product is another.

"The biggest challenge is getting a lot of electric vehicles on the road, reducing costs, and seeing how consumers like them," said Constantine Samaras, an engineering researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Tesla's stance, Samaras said, is "We're here. We're real. We have cars."

Now, Tesla faces the challenge of scaling up, Samaras said. But can it? "We'll have to wait and see."

Launched in 2003, Tesla began production a year ago. The plan was to compete not at the economy end of the market, but at the top. Tesla promises pizzazz, not thrift.

Until now, most Americans equated electric vehicles with wimpy cars "that couldn't even get up a hill," sniffed Joe Powers, a Tesla manager who plans to open a New York showroom in months. "Tesla's goal was 'Let's shatter those preconceptions.' "

Indeed, at a recent electric-car confab in Montgomery County, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff flashed a photo of himself behind the wheel of a Tesla, noting, "There's no question the electric car can be the sexy car."

Adding eco to speed is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too proposition.

One telling feature: The trunk capacity is described not by how many grocery bags can fit, but whether a golf bag will. (Yes. Just.)

A 3 1/2-hour charge gives the twin-seater a range of roughly 244 miles.

To reserve a production slot, buyers have to put down $9,900 (until about a week ago, it was $60,000) and wait nearly a year. Tesla has delivered about 265 vehicles, with 1,000 more on order.

The path has been potholed, but Powers said the private firm expects to be profitable by midyear.

If the roadster becomes successful, he said, Tesla can "map that DNA" onto cheaper models - like the $57,400 Model S sedan, larger and more practical, set to be unveiled Thursday.

Buyers of both the roadster and the sedan are eligible for a $7,500 tax credit.

Tesla also has applied for $450 million from a U.S. Department of Energy loan program aimed at producing fuel-efficient cars.

Most of it would build a factory to make the sedan, with production expected by 2011.

Early buyers - most were in California - included honchos of Microsoft and Google.

But it's not really clear whether customers value the greenness or the sports-car aspect more.

Don Auker, who owns a software company in Lebanon, Pa., likes the green and is expecting Car No. 227, in twilight blue, within weeks. Good thing. It's been a bit chilly lately on his Vectrix, one of several electric motorcycles on the market.

Joe Camarata of Woodbridge, N.J., a sales rep for makers of fire, burglary, and security systems, drives a Viper. "It rocks." But he likes the Tesla's moves even better. Electric? Swell. "But for me, it's all about speed."

David Brussin of Berwyn, the chief executive officer of Monetate, a marketing technology start-up, falls somewhere in between. He loves sports cars, "but this is the only one I could drive with a clean conscience."

Barry Stott, an aviation consultant from Chadds Ford, was drawn to the car partly because he's intrigued by Tesla's "visionary" chief executive officer Elon Musk, also a cofounder of PayPal who is venturing into solar power and space travel. But Stott's practical side has kicked in, and he said he might wait for the sedan.

If a Tesla is too pricey, Friedland said, just wait. "If your car is still working, hold on to it," he said. "The next generation of cars is what you want to get."

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.

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