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USA: At the Portland auto show: Electric cars catching on slowly

At the Portland International Auto Show, Igor Fakashchuk pops out of a Chevy Volt with a grimace.

“Too pricey, No. 1,” the Portland truck driver says. “Too much plastic inside, No. 2.”

Around a corner, Ralph Hutchison looks longingly at a battery powered Nissan Leaf and talks about cutting U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

“I want to get us out of the Middle East so bad,” says the retired firefighter from Washougal, Wash. “I’d buy an all-electric, but my wife is all, ‘What if we run out?'” of juice.

The auto show’s green car lineup indicates how far and fast electric cars have come. Four years ago, the new, road ready electric options ranged from a $100,000 Tesla roadster to glorified golf carts that topped out at 35 miles an hour.

The 2013 show features three all-electrics packing ample highway punch and four muscular plug-in hybrids such as the Volt, with small gas engines to extend their range.

At the same time, interviews with tire-kickers at the convention center show the cars still face formidable challenges; namely, sticker price and the distance they’ll travel on a charge, maxing out at about 100 miles for all-electrics below $50,000.

Chris Snodgrass of Lake Oswego, at the show with her husband, Rick, used to work for General Motors, and she thinks the Volt is “really cute.”

“But I’m just not ready for an electric car,” she says. “There you are on the freeway with an empty e-tank.”

Stan Sittser, Portland General Electric’s transportation electrification project manager, worked a PGE booth at the show. Electric car choice is way up, he says, and the market is moving beyond the greenest buyers.

“We’ve gone from the innovators to the early adopters who are not going to put up with a bunch of headaches,” Sittser says. “Now we’re in a market where people say, ‘This has to work.'”

In 2012, U.S. sales of electrics and plug-in hybrids hit about 52,000 cars, helped by attractive lease options and federal tax credits of up to $7,500.

That’s a smidgen of total U.S. sales, and far from the pace needed to hit President Barack Obama’s goal of 1 million cars by 2015.

But supporters see optimistic signs. The Volt sold about 23,500 in 2012, triple 2011 results, despite a voluntary recall early in the year.

With nearly 800 public charging stations, Oregon is developing a nation-leading network to supplement home charging. That should help reduce range anxiety.

And a 2012 study of business fleet economics by Pike Research found that all-electrics had the lowest total cost over 120,000 miles, in part because of the electric drivetrain’s high efficiency.


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