Chevy Spark Electric Minicar Designed for California Emissions Compliance

By · October 13, 2011

Chevy Spark

Chevy Spark

General Motors confirmed yesterday it will make an all-electric minicar called the Chevy Spark, to debut in 2013. While more product choice of electric cars is a positive step for the market, EV advocates worry that another small limited-range and potentially underpowered electric car will fuel negative stereotypes about electric vehicles. They wonder why the Spark was selected as the company's first all-electric model since the ill-fated EV1, when GM is capable of producing a much more appealing and exciting electric vehicle.

The company said the Spark EV's global rollout will be similar to that of the Chevy Volt, which started in the US market and has expanded from there. GM didn’t specify the Spark EV's expected battery range, price, or launch date.

“Is this the right car class?” asked Jay Friedland, legislative director of Plug In America. “What are the motivations? Why are they doing it? Maybe they’ll make the Spark for compliance, or maybe they’ve done it because they think there’s a market and it’s going to sell.”

If GM’s motivation is based on seeing a significant untapped market for small all-electric cars in urban environments, it would represent a shift in the company’s approach. GM executives have repeatedly questioned the appeal of the Nissan LEAF and other pure electric cars—emphasizing that the range-extending capability of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid make it a far superior option for most consumers.

The introduction of relatively affordable five-seat highway-capable electric cars, such as the Nissan LEAF, have gone a long way to dispel the myth that EVs can’t be comfortable and fun to drive. The diminutive Chevy Spark could undermine that progress, and if it fails to find enough buyers, could be used by GM and others to argue that there is low demand for electric cars.

The California Air Resource Board’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandates require that the auto industry’s top six companies collectively produce approximately 25,000 gas-free cars between 2013 and 2015. Because of the ZEV credit system’s complexity—which allows buying credits as well as producing cars—the exact number of vehicles mandated for each automaker is not precise. Observers believe the number is approximately 1,500 to 3,000.

The Chevy Volt can only satisfy 50 percent of the GM’s ZEV credit requirement—and that’s only after the car is certified as an Enhanced Advanced Technology-Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (EAT-PZEV). The current Volt is classified as a conventional hybrid. Therefore, the company must produce either an all-electric car or a fuel-cell vehicle. The Spark could represent the least expensive option for GM to meet the CARB mandate.

General Motors is not the only company producing electric vehicles only as “the minimal compliance pathway to meet ZEV mandates,” according to Friedland. He pointed specifically to Toyota and BMW. Toyota is expected to produce about 2,600 units of the RAV4 EV, a number that closely aligns with minimal ZEV levels.

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