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New electric cars

While not much of a murder, much less a mystery, the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" may fuel new interest in what is a very old idea, namely, electric vehicles or EVs.

The 2006 documentary, directed by Chris Paine, chronicles the life of General Motors' EV1, which was available for lease from 1996 until 2001. But reports of the demise of electric cars have been greatly exaggerated. A handful of start-up companies have entered the market with vehicles like the lightning-fast Tesla Roadster and the Wrightspeed X1, the revolutionary Tango, the light trucks of Phoenix Motorcars and the low-speed GEM from DaimlerChrysler. And with rising fuel prices, many more may well be on the horizon.

Upstart Tesla Motors, based in San Carlos, Calif., raised $40 million from forwarding-thinking guys like eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, PayPal founder Elon Musk and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. (Tesla was named for Nikola Tesla, the often-mysterious inventor of alternating current.) With a range of 225 miles on a 3.5 hour charge, the Tesla Roadster looks like a sleek Lotus and drives like one, too. The company is positioning the Roadster alongside the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK55 and the BMW M. They carry price tags in the mid-$40,000 to mid-$60,000 range, and the Roadster will be higher than that, about $100,000. While congestion and short commutes are driving other business models, the Roadster is built for open roads and for those who like curve-hugging handling at high speed. This car ain't a golf cart. Contributing to the Tesla Roadster's creation was Ian Wright, another Silicon Valley-based "extreme performance" electric supercar maker.

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A former data communications engineer, Wright gained notoriety when he tested his X1 electric car against a Ferrari 360 Spider and a Porsche Carrera GT. The electric upstart outpaced the competitors, going from zero to 60 mph in 3 seconds, and reaching the equivalent of 170 mph. Coincidentally, its energy consumption in urban use is the equivalent of 170 miles per gallon. Wright boasts it's among the fastest cars ever made, and he founded Wrightspeed to custom-make the cars. As the X1 is a prototype only, customers can expect the production model to be quite different from the original, though they can rest assured that it'll still pack a punch.

Everyday EVs

Clearly, the Tesla Roadster and the future production Wrightspeed X1 are aimed at well-heeled driving enthusiasts, but both vehicles challenge the perception that electric is dull. That perception is not something that bothers DaimlerChrysler, the only big automaker currently in the electric arena with the GEM low-speed vehicle. Back in July 2006, DaimlerChrysler got screen time when then-President Vladimir Putin bought 30 GEM vehicles for the G8 summit that was held in Russia that year.

Focusing on college campuses, gated-communities and resort markets, the GEM (an acronym for Global Electric Motorcars, based in Fargo, N.D.) is a fully street-legal and safety-tested "neighborhood" vehicle. With more than 36,000 currently in use worldwide, and a $7,000 to $12,500 sticker price, they are as functional as they are cheap to operate and maintain. While decidedly unglamorous, DaimlerChrysler's GEM vehicles may be part of a corporate strategy.

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