Preview: Cars Of The Future, Coming Sooner Than You Think

December 14, 2009

Grab any science magazine from the last century, and you'll see ideas and sketches for cars of the future, from atomic-powered to levitating.

But the future is here already, and it's going on sale at a showroom near you over the next three model years. Here's our roundup of the most significant new cars that you'll be able to buy between now and the end of your current three-year auto lease.

Tesla Roadster

Tesla Roadster

2010 Tesla Roadster

  • What is it? Two-seat electric sports car that showed the world electric cars could be sexy
  • The basics: 0-60 mph in under 4 seconds, via 185-kW(248-hp) electric motor powered by 53-kWh lithium-ion battery pack
  • Driving Impressions: 2010 Tesla Roadster - Review
  • On sale: now
  • Price: $109,000-plus (eligible for $7,500 Federal tax credit and, until Dec 31, $42,000 Colorado tax credit)

As of now, the 2010 Tesla Roadster is the only one of these six cars that you can buy today. And as anyone who's driven one will tell you, it's hellacious fun. This is the car that forever took the nerdy golf-cart image away from electric vehicles.

With engineering help from Lotus, a carbon-fiber body, and some interior upgrades for 2010, the Tesla Roadster remains the only EV that you can drive out of the dealer. If you have over one hundred grand to drop on a car with a likely range of 200 miles or less, that is.

(Have we mentioned lately that you could win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport by entering our new writing contest? Fear not. We'll remind you again. A lot.)

Its battery pack is made up of 6,831 commodity mobile-phone batteries, tied together in a breathtaking array of wiring, control software, and safety features to ensure that even if one of them short-circuits, the others don't.

Like any small, light, primitive sports car, you can't use the 2010 Tesla Roadster to take the kids to soccer practice. For that, you'll have to wait for the seven-seat Tesla Model S electric luxury sports sedan, promised for 2012.

fisker karma motorauthority 005

fisker karma motorauthority 005

2010 Fisker Karma

  • What is it? Four-door extended-range electric sports sedan
  • The basics: Two 150-kW electric motors, 22-kWh battery pack, 175-kW generator run by 2.4-liter GM Ecotec four
  • Driving Impressions: None. As of today, not a single journalist has driven a Fisker Karma.
  • On sale: Deliveries begin between July and September of 2010
  • Price: $87,400 (eligible for $7,500 Federal tax credit)

Sleek, sexy, and undeniably green, the 2010 Karma was created by and named for Henrik Fisker. The former BMW designer had long wanted to show that fuel-efficient cars didn't have to be ugly or unpleasant to drive. So he got a car company funded to prove the point.

While the Karma may be a 2011 model by the time it hits the showrooms of selected luxury car dealers next summer, Fisker plans to build up to 20,000 a year. The company's research shows strong demand for a greener luxury sports sedan, and perhaps the fact that Tesla plans a similar car--though all electric--proves the point.

Like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, the Fisker Karma is an extended-range electric vehicle. It runs up to 50 miles on electric power from a lithium-ion battery pack, and then a gasoline engine kicks in to provide electric power for another 250 miles.

Fisker is also planning a smaller family sedan, code-named Nina, that it will build at a former GM factory in Delaware. But it's all hypothetical until outsiders get to drive the production Karma. And that hasn't happened yet, unless the Crown Prince of Denmark counts.

Stay tuned on that one.

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High Gear Media has partnered with Tesla Motors on a new writing contest where YOU can win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport. You can submit as many articles as you like and enter multiple times. Enter now!

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

  • What is it? GM's highly publicized four-door, four-seat compact extended-range electric car
  • The basics: 120-kW electric motor driving front wheels, 16-kWh battery pack, 53-kW generator run by 1.4-liter Ecotec four
  • Driving Impressions: Driving Detroit's Electric Future: 2011 Chevrolet Volt
  • On sale: November or December 2010
  • Price: $40,000-plus (estimated; eligible for $7,500 Federal tax credit)

General Motors had one of the world's most advanced electric-vehicle programs in the 1990s, which produced several hundred EV1 two-seat electric cars. Changing California regulations and the 40- to 70-mile range of their lead-acid batteries led GM to kill the program, which departed CEO Rick Wagoner later said was the decision he regretted most from his tenure.

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is GM's penance, and the company protected the program and its timetable even through bankruptcy earlier this year. It has been unusually transparent during the car's development process, publicizing cold-weather tests, offering rides in engineering mules, and regularly putting executives and engineers in front of reporters.

The Volt promises 40 miles of electric range--which is more than the daily distance covered by two-thirds of U.S. drivers--and overnight recharging on either 110-Volt or 220-Volt power. And it'll do another 300 miles, using the gasoline engine to power its electric motor, once the battery is depleted.

Important to note: The Volt is not a traditional hybrid, in the mold of the 2010 Toyota Prius, which powers its wheels with a mix of torque from the engine and electric motors. Instead, the Volt turns its front wheels solely with its electric motor, and the engine only runs a large generator to provide power to that motor--just like a freight locomotive.

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High Gear Media has partnered with Tesla Motors on a new writing contest where YOU can win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport. You can submit as many articles as you like and enter multiple times. Enter now!

2010 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show

2010 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

  • What is it? The quintessential hybrid, fitted with a larger battery pack that can be recharged from grid power
  • The basics: 4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack (versus 1.6-kWh nickel-metal-hydride in standard 2010 Prius)
  • Driving Impressions: None
  • On sale: Late 2011 (est.)
  • Price: $35,000 (est.)

Toyota has sold more than 2 million hybrid-electric vehicles since 1997, or about two-thirds of the world's total. Its 2010 Toyota Prius is the third generation of the car that defines "hybrid" to car buyers all over the globe, and the company has said it will offer a hybrid version of every vehicle it sells before 2020.

But with so much invested in hybrid technology, Toyota has been extremely hesitant to take the next step and offer cars whose batteries can be recharged from the electric grid. Indeed, its first few years of Prius advertising stressed that drivers didn't need to plug it in.

Instead, Toyota has focused obsessively on driving down the cost of its Hybrid Synergy Drive system,  which perhaps only recently has begun to break even or turn a profit for the world's largest carmaker. But with almost a dozen companies offering aftermarket plug-in conversions to give standard Priuses up to 30 miles of electric range, Toyota has stepped up its research.

The company just announced it will sell a plug-in hybrid in 2011, most likely as a 2012 model. Whether this is a version of its Prius or a completely new car isn't yet clear.

What is clear is that the car won't offer as much electric range as the all-electric 2012 Nissan Leaf or 2012 Ford Focus EV, each of which promises 100 miles. Nor will the plug-in Toyota give the 40 miles of electric range cited for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt or 2010 Fisker Karma, which use gasoline engines to provide electric power for a few hundred more miles after their batteries are depleted.

Instead, Toyota's plug-in hybrid roughly triples the energy contained in its battery pack, which shifts from nickel-metal-hydride to lithium-ion. And that gives up to 14 miles of electric range. As with the standard Prius, though, that is most likely to be available at low speeds, on level roads, with light loads and gentle acceleration.

That 4-kilowatt-hour pack, in fact, is the smallest size that qualifies for the lowest Federal tax credit for electric vehicles, of $2,500. (The Volt's 16-kWh pack gets the maximum $7,500 credit.)

The plug-in Prius (or whatever it's called) retains the characteristic of the current model: Its hybrid system decides when and where to switch on the gasoline engine to supplement the electric power.

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High Gear Media has partnered with Tesla Motors on a new writing contest where YOU can win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport. You can submit as many articles as you like and enter multiple times. Enter now!

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2012 Nissan Leaf

  • What is it? All-electric compact five-door hatchback from Nissan
  • The basics: 80-kW motor, driving front wheels, powered by 24-kWh lithium-ion battery pack
  • Driving Impressions: Preview Drive: 2012 Nissan Leaf EV Prototype
  • On sale: Will be rolled out regionally; first deliveries to a few selected consumers by end of 2010
  • Price: car will be priced competitively with other competitors; battery pack will be leased separately

Nissan is barely a player in hybrid-electric vehicles, licensing an older version of the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system to produce a few thousand Altima Hybrids every year that are sold in only a handful of U.S. states. Instead, the company has staked its green future on pure electric vehicles.

The five-door Leaf, which will go on sale in small numbers by the end of next year, demonstrates the advantage of dispensing with a gasoline engine altogether (unlike extended-range EVs like the 2010 Volt). While it occupies no more volume than a compact hatchback, Nissan claims it offers the interior space of a midsize car.

Nissan says the Leaf will offer 100 miles of electric range, which covers far more than 90 percent of average U.S. daily driving needs. And it says the car will be price-competitive with compact cars when running costs are taken into account, since electric power is far cheaper per mile than gasoline.

But given the high cost of early lithium-ion cell technology, Nissan has chosen to lease the Leaf battery packs separately. It is looking for 20,000 potential buyers to volunteer before the car actually goes on sale.

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High Gear Media has partnered with Tesla Motors on a new writing contest where YOU can win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport. You can submit as many articles as you like and enter multiple times. Enter now!

Ford Focus EV

Ford Focus EV

2012 Ford Focus EV

  • What is it? All-electric version of Ford's new-for-2012 Focus compact sedan
  • The basics: 105-kW motor, driving front wheels, powered by 23-kWh lithium-ion battery pack
  • Driving Impressions: First Drive: 2012 Ford Focus EV Prototype
  • On sale: during 2012 model year
  • Price: not yet even estimated

Ford has offered limited numbers of hybrid-electric vehicles since 2004, first the Escape Hybrid compact crossover and now the well-received 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid sedan. It is taking its next cautious step into new green technology by planning to offer a low-volume electric version of its upcoming, completely redesigned 2012 Ford Focus compact.

Before this car, Ford will also offer an electric version of its 2010 Ford Transit Connect small commercial delivery van. But that vehicle is likely to be restricted to businesses that install the necessary charging infrastructure for small fleets of electric vehicles. The 2012 Focus EV will be Ford's first electric car aimed at ordinary consumers.

Jay Leno recently demonstrated a more recent prototype than the one we drove last summer. Ours was a converted U.S.-market 2009 Ford Focus four-door sedan; Leno's was the completely different European Focus, in this case a five-door hatchback.

But the production Focus EV, which will be built in the same Michigan factory as the standard gasoline 2012 Ford Focus, will be the all-new, global design that Ford is expected to unveil at next month's Detroit Auto Show.

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High Gear Media has partnered with Tesla Motors on a new writing contest where YOU can win a tour and road test of the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport. You can submit as many articles as you like and enter multiple times. Enter now!

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