Chrysler announced Monday that it will sell an electric version of the small Fiat 500 in 2012, the latest carmaker to announce plans for electrics as their ranges improve and gas prices creep steadily upward.
Ford, meanwhile, is readying an electric version of its Transit Connect small van to sell late this year, and General Motors plans to start selling its Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car around the same time.
Nissan is preparing to announce prices next month for its Leaf electric car due in November, with a claimed 100- mile range between rechargings, and Toyota begins field testing the plug-in Prius hybrid it is promising for 2012.
Some experts say, however, that the high costs of the lithium ion batteries - favored for electric cars and plug-in hybrid electric cars because of their high energy storage capacity -- will make electrics relatively expensive and limit their appeal for at least the next decade.
Most hybrids, which cannot be plugged in for recharging, have less expensive nickel metal hydride batteries whose cost of $5,000 to $6,000 is about half that of lithium ion, said Mike Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrains for auto market researchers J.D. Power and Associates.
His company forecasts that pure electrics like the Fiat 500EV will account for only about 50,000 of the 16 million new cars and trucks sold in this country in 2016, mostly because of their high costs and relatively limited ranges.
"There'll be only a limited market for 'early adopters' who want the latest and greatest," he said.
But, he added, plug-in hybrids and extended-range electrics like the Volt, which will have a gasoline engine to recharge the batteries, will have wider appeal -- probably accounting for 150,000 sales in 2016.
A conventional gasoline-powered Fiat 500, a two-door car about six inches shorter than a Mini Cooper, is to be built by Chrysler in Mexico and is due in December at some Chrysler Group dealerships. The electric model was shown at January's Detroit auto show, but Chrysler did not say at that time whether it intended to build it for sale.
Italy's Fiat owns a 20 percent interest in Chrysler and is helping develop an array of new cars and trucks to arrive in Chrysler showrooms in coming years.
"The Fiat 500 is a small, lightweight platform perfect for integrating electric-vehicle technology," Scott Kunselman, Chrysler senior vice president for engineering, said in an announcement. Prices weren't announced, nor was the estimated range between rechargings.
Other small electrics expected in showrooms in the next few years include versions of the Smart ForTwo minicar, due in 2012; Ford Focus electric due next year, and a Toyota urban electric vehicle for 2012.