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Automakers bet on alternative-fuel cars for future

By David McHugh
Associated Press

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FRANKFURT: Judging by the number of electric and hybrid vehicles being rolled out at the Frankfurt Auto Show, it might seem carmakers are tapping a large and eager market.

But in fact almost no one buys such cars — yet.

Automakers keep adding electric versions of existing vehicles — such as Volkswagen’s all-electric versions of its Up! city car and Golf compact — or ones they have designed as electrics from the ground up, such as BMW’s small electric city car i3.

Analyst Christoph Stuermer at IHS automotive called Frankfurt “the first full-throttle electric propulsion show” that’s about “getting electric drive cars out of the eco-nerd, tree-hugger segment and into the cool group.”

The companies are making high-performance, luxury versions that give up little or nothing in performance to conventional models.

BMW’s i8 goes 0-62 mph in 4.5 seconds. Audi’s Quattro sport concept — meaning it’s for demonstration, not for sale — is an aggressive looking sports car with large air intakes flanking the grille and a whopping 700 horsepower from its hybrid drive. The company says it can reach 190 mph.

The Mercedes S-Class plug-in hybrid version, meanwhile, has a powerful six-cylinder internal combustion engine plus an all-electric range of about 20 miles. This way, owners could commute all-electric during the week, recharging overnight — but use the gasoline engine on a family vacation. The company says mileage is 78 per gallon.

All this, to cater to a market that doesn’t really exist. Only 0.2 percent of all cars registered in Europe are hybrids, which combine batteries with internal combustion engines, or electrics, according to the ACEA European automakers association.

In the United States, the Toyota Prius hybrid has broken into the top 10 selling passenger cars. However, sales of electric vehicles have struggled because of high prices and so-called range anxiety: buyers’ fear of running out of power.

Analysts and executives say the cars can help lower average fleet emissions to meet government requirements. And automakers want to be ready in case governments — perhaps in heavily polluted China — push people into emission-free vehicles.

“Short term, nobody will get a return on these investments,” Daimler AG chief executive Dieter Zetsche told the Associated Press. “But definitely, long term, the development will go in this direction, and if you don’t learn this lesson today you will not be in the game tomorrow.”


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