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LA Auto Show Chevrolet Spark EV

The Nissan Leaf and Tesla S have competition. Electric vehicles from Chevrolet, Fiat, and BMW were unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday, bringing the number of EVs and plug-in hybrids on display to more than a dozen. The Chevrolet Spark EV will sell for about $ 25,000 and integrates Apple Siri, the Fiat 500e will be memorable for its signature Electric Orange color, and the BMW i3 Concept Coupe sets itself apart with a carbon fiber structure. These vehicles are coming into a market that is growing rapidly and yet will be just over 10,000 US sales is 2012 for battery-only electric vehicles (BEVs).

Add together plug-in hybrids, hybrids, clean diesels, and high-mpg gasoline-engine cars announced or on display, and it’s clear that the 2012 LA Auto Show is catering to the green environment in California. Here’s a rundown of the battery electric vehicles announced and what they mean.

LA Auto Show Chevrolet Spark EV motor

Chevrolet Spark EV: $ 25K, quick recharge, and Siri, too

The Chevrolet Spark EV is the first electric car to use the SAE J1772 Combo DC Fast Charge specification that allows for recharging to 80% of battery capacity in 20 minutes. It’s also cheap to buy at about $ 25,000 before a $ 7,500 federal tax credit. There are twin LCD displays in the center stack, the better to show off the electrical wizardry, and Chevrolet MyLink in the Spark EV embeds Apple Siri compatibility with the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4S.

J1772 Combo DC Fast Charge is a spec endorsed by many European- and US-based automakers, but not the Asians. It’s meant to deal with recharge anxiety: If you want to drive more than 100 miles, you don’t want to wait an hour or two for existing quick charge solutions. At 20 minutes claimed, this isn’t much longer than a normal gas-engine refueling stop. Normal recharge takes about seven hours for the Spark EV; Chevy says the A123 battery pack is designed to take multiple quick charges during the day. Expect to hear more discussion (read: Chevy bashing) about how well a battery can withstand quick charges and still live on for multiple years.

GM says the Spark EV will be available summer 2013 in California, Oregon, South Korea and Canada initially. While it’s cheap for an EV, you could of course buy a gas-engine Spark for $ 13,000.

LA Auto Show Fiat 500e

Fiat 500e: Cute urban car gets cuter

This may be a car Fiat didn’t want to build. Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne in March said Fiat will lose $ 10,000 on every Fiat 500e it builds. But it looks good on paper and now in the flesh, including the bold Electrico Arancione (Electric Orange) paint treatment shown on this vehicle on the Fiat stand. Fiat says the 500e will get about 80 miles per charge in normal driving and hints at a city driving range of more than 100 miles, which would be outstanding if it happens. Most EV driving is in urban areas. Most automakers start out saying their electric cars get about 100 miles range and then, with the reality of user experience settling in, find that 75-80 miles is the new norm.

Recharging is about four hours using a 220-volt charger and almost a full day recharging from standard 120-volt outlets. When it comes to the US, it will be sold in California only. Price is estimated to be around $ 35,000, less the $ 7,500 EV tax credit, plus the apparent $ 10,000 loss that Fiat shareholders will shoulder.

LA Auto Show BMW i3 with i8 foreground

LA Auto Show BMW i3, with the i8 in the foreground

BMW i3: Technology up the wazoo (proving it’s a real BMW)

Weight is the enemy of efficiency. With the BMW i3 Concept Coupe, BMW unveiled an EV built with a carbon fiber frame instead of steel or aluminum. The body panels are covered in plastic, here a coppery orange with black roof panels. Carbon fiber also gives the i3 exceptional crash protection; carbon fiber is the component of choice in open-wheel (Formula 1) race cars. The motor and electronics are similar to the BMW ActiveE with 168 hp, which is a lot for an EV if not for a BMW. Still, this weighs under 2,500 pounds (1,100kg), or 1,200 pounds less than the BMW ActiveE, which is basically a BMW 1 Series EV that has been leased in small quantities (1,000) to build real-world experience for the i3.

The i3 is a three-door concept vehicle, although “concept car” when spoken by BMW means pretty much what you’ll see as a real car in a year or so. It’s due to launch late in late 2013. The big difference: the concept is a three-door coupe. The production i3 will be a five-door hatchback with decent room for four (just go easy on the luggage). The lithium-ion battery pack will be in the car’s flat floor. Rather than an instrument panel, there will be one LCD behind the steering wheel, a second in the center stack, and a control wheel (iDrive). With the motor and electronics in front and the driven wheels in back, it will have nearly equal front-rear weight distribution for better handling — a characteristic prized by car buffs. Price hasn’t been announced but the premium features suggest it could be around $ 50,000.

BMW is building an EV/PHEV sub-brand called BMW i. The i3 (initially called the Mega City Vehicle) comes first as a battery-only vehicle, followed by the BMW i8 in 2014. The i8, which was re-unveiled in LA, will be a plug-in hybrid with acceleration and handling on par with BMW’s M performance cars.

Now read: Nissan Leaf can power your house for a day or two