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Tiny Electric Cars Are Coming

If batteries aren’t up to the job, why not make smaller cars?

French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroën kicked off the Geneva Motor Show this morning by announcing that it is pursuing a deal with Mitsubishi Motor to develop a compact electric car for sale in Europe next year. It will be based on Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, an approximately 160-kilometer-range commuter car that the company plans to roll out in Japan this summer.

Plenty more compact four-wheelers are in the automotive pipeline. Daimler will sell a battery version of its popular Smart Fortwo next year, and Volkswagen is engineering a commuter EV called the Audi Up! with a top speed of 130 kilometers per hour and roughly 100 kilometers of range. Renault is engineering a pair of battery-powered cars, to be produced starting in 2011.

These automakers are betting that there will be a market for smaller electric vehicles (EVs) that will be cheaper to build and far cheaper and cleaner to operate than regular hybrids. With battery technology developing rapidly and the automotive market in turmoil, that logic even has gas-electric hybrid champion Toyota hedging its bets. At the Detroit auto show in January, Toyota put the spotlight on new versions of its Prius, but also announced plans to offer a commuter EV in 2012.

Prototype i-MiEV on show at this week’s Geneva car confab. Sketch: Mitsubishi

To be fair, most of the companies talking up tiny EVs are similarly hedging their bets, simultaneously developing a range of hybrid options. PSA Peugeot Citroën plans to launch two diesel-hybrid vehicles in 2011–the Citroën DS5 HYbrid4 and the Peugeot 3008 HYbrid4–and it’s also developing a “multipurpose” plug-in hybrid EV analogous to the Chevy Volt.

Like the Volt, PSA’s plug-in will be a series hybrid, in which a small fuel-efficient engine serves only to recharge the batteries en route. Unlike the Volt, however, the engine can be swapped out and additional batteries swapped in for longer-range city driving.

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