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Electric cars steal the spotlight at auto show

When the North American International Auto Show opens in Detroit on Friday, there's going to be electricity in the air.

That's because electrification is one of this year's hottest trends. The floor is also packed with an assortment of electric things including a bicycle, a moped and even a battery-powered racing car.

But the star of the show is the Chevy Volt, the electric car with a backup gas engine. It won the top prize -- the 2011 North American Car of the Year.

But it's certainly not the only electric car or hybrid in the game or on display at the show. Ford unveiled an electric version of the Focus compact. There's also an assortment of vehicles on display from Tesla Motors. Then, there are the Nissan Leaf, the Smart Car Electric Drive, Mini Cooper's Mini E and the Mercedes SLS E.

Low Inventory

Jessica Caldwell, director of pricing and industry analysis at, says it's not possible to buy an electric car just yet.

"You couldn't get one," she says. "If you get one, it's probably going to be secondhand because there's such high demand for those vehicles."

December is one of the most important months for auto sales. During the month, GM sold just 329 Chevy Volts and Nissan sold about 10 Leafs.

Both cars just went into production, and both companies say they're planning to increase production levels.

GM has high hopes that the Volt will be adopted by a mainstream audience.

"Today a lot of our customers are early tech adopters -- typically the first on the block to have an iPhone or an iPad," says Tony DiSalle, the head of marketing for the Chevy Volt. He thinks those numbers will improve over time.

"The most important thing is to get consumers -- mass-market consumers -- to understand the benefits of the Volt," DiSalle says.

GM expects to sell about 10,000 Volts this year. In 2012, the company will ramp up production to about 45,000 cars. But even that figure is small compared with the more than 2.2 million cars and trucks that GM's four brands sold in 2010. In the near term, the company says its electric fleet will account for a small sliver of sales.

Range Anxiety

One of the barriers to the adoption of the electric car is a phrase that keeps coming up at the auto show -- range anxiety. Many of the cars on display can only travel under electric power for short ranges. Analysts say that until the big car companies can conquer consumer fears of running out of charge, electric vehicles will remain on the fringes.

"Look, the electrification of the American fleet is not going to happen overnight," says Bob Lutz, who retired as vice chairman of GM in May.

Before he left GM, he was responsible for pushing the Volt to production. He says electrification will be a gradual process, predicting that it will take until 2025 for electric vehicles to account for 10 percent to 15 percent of the overall market.

"Will it suddenly flip and within like two years you go into the showrooms and half the cars are electric?" Lutz says. "The answer is no."

More Efficient Combustion Engines

But Caldwell of says the real star of the Detroit auto show remains the old combustible engine. She says almost every manufacturer is putting out cars that are getting more and more fuel efficient.

Caldwell says there are plenty of fuel-efficient options for consumers -- even if they aren't as exciting as electric cars. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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