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USA: This Summer, Electric Cars Are Merging Into California’s Traffic

DEBUT Deliveries of the Tesla Model S are just beginning, including a model offering a 265-mile range at $96,570. More Photos »

IT doesn’t sound as sexy as the 1967 Summer of Love, but for Californians with a passion for plug-ins, the warm months of 2012 are turning into the season of the electric car.

Some four years after the $100,000-plus Tesla Roadster became the nation’s only new electric vehicle capable of highway speeds, a wave of more affordable plug-in cars are coming to market. And California, the state with the nation’s largest auto market, the worst air quality and the most stringent emissions rules, is the first to catch the tide.

By summer’s end, nearly a dozen plug-in cars and crossovers may be traveling the state’s highways, including five or so that are arriving before the end of August. The latest models are from upstarts like Tesla and Coda Automotive as well as from global giants like Ford and Toyota.

Aside from the state’s longtime role as a trend incubator, other factors have combined to make this a test bed for what proponents hope will be a new age in personal transportation. The state’s policy makers have set tough emissions rules mandating a rising number of zero-emission vehicles, and they’ve offered tax incentives for buyers. As a hotbed of high technology and entertainment, California has plenty of influential early adopters with ready cash. An expanded charging infrastructure is being developed and, perhaps most important, battery-powered cars grant access to the coveted car-pool lanes on congested freeways.

Among the most anticipated electric models of the summer is the Tesla Model S luxury sedan, with base prices of $58,570 to $78,570, depending on the size of the battery pack and, consequently, the driving range on a charge. While the car was under development, Tesla collected more than 10,000 reservations without so much as a test drive. Once promised for delivery in 2009, the S — Tesla’s second model — at last reached customers on June 22.

“The people who buy this car are the movers and shakers — leaders in arts, entertainment, business,” said Paul Scott, a co-founder of the advocacy group Plug In America who now sells electric Leafs at a Nissan dealership in downtown Los Angeles.

“I sold a Leaf to Danny DeVito,” Mr. Scott said. “He’s that kind of guy. But you’ve got a lot of people who just will not put themselves into a small car.” On the other hand, he said, celebrities who live large are the ones who “will drive the market” if they embrace upscale electric cars like the Tesla, influencing purchases by regular Janes and Joes.

Following the Model S’s introduction last weekend, Tesla is providing thousands of test drives for reservation holders, starting in Fremont and Los Angeles before moving on to a dozen cities across North America.

California drivers are also getting a chance to get behind the wheel of the $38,145 electric sedan from Coda, based in Los Angeles, at test-drive events through the summer in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area. The car will initially be sold through four dealerships in the state.

What’s markedly different about the plug-in vehicle market this summer is the growing presence of some of the world’s largest carmakers. Ford began slowly delivering its $40,000 Focus Electric to dealers in May (a month in which just six units were sold) and was expecting to ship 350 cars to dealerships in California, New Jersey and New York by the end of June.

Honda plans to start leasing its Fit EV for $389 a month in California and Oregon on July 20, with a move into six East Coast markets next year.

Certainly, electric vehicles are still in their tentative early days. “There will be model launches, but each one will be a few hundred or a few thousand,” Michael Omotoso, a senior manager of LMC Automotive, a research firm, said in a telephone interview last week. “We don’t expect an E.V. to be a big seller like the Toyota Prius anytime soon. But we also don’t expect any of these cars to be a big disaster.”

LMC’s forecast for 2012 puts sales of all-electric vehicles at only one-tenth of 1 percent of the nation’s light-vehicle market, or about 12,000 vehicles. And plug-in hybrids, which have a gasoline engine as well as an electric drive system that can be charged with a cord, are projected to claim three-tenths of a percent, or about 40,000 units.

For automakers, Mr. Omotoso said, “the significance is to show that you can produce an electric vehicle at a price that maybe not the average consumer can afford, but a lot of consumers can afford.” He added, “It’s a first step toward having a significant number of electric vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years.”


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