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With the 2014 Chevy Spark EV, the long march plugs in

November 15, 2012

I can't tell you how much General Motors wants to charge for a 2014 Chevy Spark EV, the first all-electric vehicle GM has sold in the United States since the ill-fated EV1. I'm not sure how far it goes, or how well it drives at highway speeds, even after two days of peppering GM executives with questions. In any other car, I'd say this shows a lack of confidence in an all-new model. but for the Spark and its ilk, such worries may be misplaced. Electric vehicles are coming whether they -- or customers -- are ready or not.

Thanks to environmental rules in California major U.S. automakers will need to sell 60,000 zero-emission cars a year by 2014, with the targets rising steadily to 1.4 million by 2025. Those rules are followed by 11 other states; European governments and China have even tougher targets in mind. The result: a brace of small models converted to run on batteries aimed at California buyers, including electron-powered versions of the Honda Fit, Toyota RAV4 and Ford Focus.

All of these vehicles share a few things in common; they have a much smaller range than their gasoline-fueled editions, and they cost at least $10,000 more. In the case of the Honda Fit and Toyota RAV4, the automakers will not sell the vehicles outright, offering only a handful under lease. It sounds like the worst kind of bureaucratic overreach, where government planners arm-twist an industry to build products at a loss for customers who don't want them.

And yet: The only viable path away from burning compressed liquified dinosaurs for energy runs toward an electric future. The two dozen GM executives gathered in San Francisco say the Spark is a car they're proud to stand behind, and one they claim was meant to do more than, in the words of GM product chief Mary Barra, "check a regulatory box." Relying on many pieces from the Chevy Volt, along with new battery designs and some refinements, the Spark stakes out what a modern electric car can do -- and where it still has to improve.

Despite being a far smaller vehicle, the Spark's battery pack is larger than the one in the Volt -- weighing 560 lbs., or 160 lbs. more than the Volt's, and carrying more than 20 kWh of electrical energy. Automakers have found the hard way that a battery pack can't just sit in a car alone -- the pack has a heating and cooling system to protect it from temperature extremes that zap its capacity. Its paired to a GM-designed and built electric motor with about 130 hp and 400 ft.-lbs. of torque at launch, enough to chirp its low-rolling resistance tires at launch and hit 60 mph in under 8 seconds.

GM says it aimed the Spark for everyday use, building a fast-charging system into the car that can replenish 80 percent of the battery pack's energy in 20 minutes. A full charge from a 240-volt home outlet will take 7 hours, and as with most EVs, the charging schedule can be modified with smartphone apps. The changes from the standard Spark beyond the electric drive are minimal; the cargo space is nearly the same, and the Spark EV has a small speaker near the front bumper that emits a whirring sound so that deaf pedestrians know it's cruising nearby. (No, you can't swap the stock sound for a Jetsons-quality burble yet.)

There's too much about the Spark EV that GM hasn't said to judge its immediate prospects. GM declined to reveal the Spark's price, range or even its total battery capacity, and drives were limited to the 25-mph paths around the Cavallo Point Lodge outside San Francisco. Based on the gauges in the preproduction models, the Spark appears to have a range of 80 to 85 miles.

But GM says the Spark and the Volt had to be built to get to the next generation of electric vehicles -- those that have better, less expensive batteries, or even more efficient electric motors. Barra says the automaker will sell 500,000 vehicles a year by 2017 with some kind of electrical power. That total includes the eAssist mild hybrid system, essentially a big alternator/starter, and GM remains well behind Ford and Toyota in more-common hybrid vehicles.

And the data from Chevy Volt owners shows that GM may have a point. Every Volt reports data back to GM about how its owners use the car; of the 141 million miles driven to date in Volts, 87 million have been traveled under electric power, and the average Volt owner goes 900 miles before filling their gas tank. The Volt has spurred GM into researching just what electric driving will mean -- from how it will affect electric utilities to what to do with battery packs that come back after 10 years. While GM threw shade on pure EVs when it launched the Volt, much of the Volt's technology was reused in the Spark. Among the many costs of progress will be a little pride.