Road-Testing Cars of the Future

6 cutting-edge vehicles hint at what Americans may soon be driving.

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Sounds captivating. But a lot could go wrong. The huge, rechargeable lithium-ion battery—the first automotive battery of its kind—could turn out to be less reliable or durable than consumers will tolerate. The price is expected to be as high as $40,000 and could rise beyond most buyers' reach. Of course, because GM is dependent on billions in federal aid, the company could kill or scale back the program, or even declare bankruptcy. But if GM delivers the Volt as promised, it could mark the beginning of a dramatic come-from-behind story.

Toyota Prius plug-in. Compared with GM, Toyota has been downright secretive about its own plug-in, a modified version of the newly designed 2010 Prius that will debut this spring. There's no official website for the Prius plug-in, and Toyota hasn't announced a launch date.

[See why falling behind Toyota is good for GM.]

In important ways, however, the SuperPrius, as some inside Toyota call it, will be very different from the Volt. Part of its lithium-ion battery pack will be rechargeable at home, but its all-electric range will be just more than 10 miles. Once that charge is exhausted, the Prius plug-in will operate like a typical hybrid, switching between the gas engine and a second portion of the battery pack, based on which mode the onboard computers deem most efficient. By early next year, Toyota should be testing 500 Prius plug-ins with fleet customers, including 150 in the United States.

Toyota's marketing claims for the Prius plug-in won't be as dramatic as GM's pitch for the Volt. But Toyota's strategy of using a smaller, more proven lithium-ion battery has advantages. It keeps cost and weight down, which means the Prius plug-in could end up being more reliable and cheaper. "Our plug-in will be 'excuse free,' " insists Bill Reinert, Toyota's national manager for advanced technology. "We want a car that people will drive 150,000 miles and 100,000 people will buy." Toyota also plans to apply lessons from the Prius plug-in to a smaller, all-electric commuter car due to go on sale in 2012, with a range of about 50 miles. Even if the Prius plug-in outperforms the Volt, other electrics on the way from Nissan, Mini, Smart, and others will challenge its primacy.

Tesla Roadster and Fisker Karma. These two novelty cars are turning heads throughout the industry. The all-electric, $110,000 Roadster, which hit the streets last year, is powered by several thousand lithium-ion batteries strung together and charged at home. "When Tesla announced they were building a car, I thought, 'If some little West Coast outfit can do this, we can no longer stand by,'" GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said in 2007, explaining the origin of the Volt program. The $88,000 Karma sedan is a plug-in hybrid due in 2010. The company says it will go up to 50 miles on battery power before its gas engine kicks in. An optional solar roof will even help cool the car and charge the battery.

[See 10 cars that could help salvage Detroit.]

The low-riding Roadster and the spacious, luxurious Karma are gorgeous, innovative cars. But the odds are stacked against them. The manufacturers, Tesla and Fisker, are tiny start-ups dwarfed by giants such as GM and Toyota, which can spread the costs of new technology over thousands or even millions of cars. Tesla—which has delivered only about 150 cars so far—has even applied for $350 million in low-cost loans from the Energy Department, prompting critics to ask why taxpayers should help fund a Silicon Valley lab experiment.

Both start-ups probably entertain hopes of a purchase or big investment by one of the major car companies, which might have been plausible before the entire auto industry went into a tailspin. But now, their best hope might be a quick economic recovery and the speedy return of $4 gas. Otherwise, these cars of the future could end up in a museum, while Americans continue to drive relics of the past.


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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.