A New (Good) Look for Electric Cars

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The Lightning GT

Electric cars have been around for almost 170 years, but it's not just the limitations of battery power that have thwarted their more widespread use. Since Scottish businessman Robert Anderson pioneered the first electric carriage in the 1830s, most electric vehicles have lacked one of the key markers of auto success: good looks. Just take a look at La Jamais Contente, designed by Belgian Camille Jénatzy in 1899, or Billard and Zarpe's space-age oddity, the Elektra King (1961). Even today's models — the REVA, or Zap!'s Xebra — are proof that the best adjective to describe most electric cars remains quirky.

Now two new models show that green can be given a devastatingly cool makeover. Britain's Lightning GT and the U.S.-built Tesla Roadster both reach 60 m.p.h. in 4 seconds or less, their makers claim, with top speeds approaching 130 m.p.h. The Lightning GT — unveiled at London's International Motor Show last week and set to be available from the end of 2009 — sports an impressive, sleek and sexy design, drawing on Aston Martin's classic British look. Tesla, which launched its hot, little open-top two-seater a couple of years ago, has already sold out of the 2008 model and is eagerly taking reservations for 2009. Battery power has rarely, if ever, looked this good.

Beneath their fine, carbon-fiber exteriors, the two cars employ different methods of sucking power and speed out of batteries. Tesla's Energy Storage System utilizes several thousand lithium-ion cells, which, due to their high energy density, exceptional energy-to-weight ratio and capacity for hundreds of charge and discharge cycles, are increasingly one of the most popular types of battery. The Lightning, on the other hand, has benefited from the wonders of nanotechnology. Its 30 batteries are made of lithium-titanate nanoparticles, a development from the conventional lithium-ion cell; they boast a range of over 185 miles and take only 10 minutes to recharge.

If electric cars are to be really successful, says Ian Sanderson, chairman of the Lightning Car Company, it is crucial that they combine eco-appeal with a good appearance. "In order to create a paradigm shift in people's thinking away from fossil fuels, we had to create a really good-looking car with style, luxury and looks," he says. "But also one that was emission-free."

Unsurprisingly, these stylish eco-warriors do not come cheap. They are exempt from road taxes and the central-London congestion charge, but at a base price of $109,000 for the Roadster and a target price of $240,000 for the Lightning, they may be made for the green among us but certainly not the mean — much cheaper, less-élite models will have to appear before the wider population can jump on the battery-powered bandwagon.

Still, the launch of two such good-looking cars is a milestone on the way to wider popularity. "It's all about consumer acceptance," says Scott Brownlee, a spokesman for Toyota and Lexus in Britain. "If you build something which is fantastic, does 1,000 miles to the gallon, but the consumer doesn't want it, you won't succeed." The eccentric, inelegant and downright unmarketable designs that have gone before may be giving way to a new breed of electric car that is attractive, stylish and as much an appeal to our ego as to our green conscience. Judging by the crowds around the two cars in London, both the Lightning and the Roadster have car buffs' attention already.