Top Three Green Cars to Watch in 2010


NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Analysts agree that so-called "green," fuel-efficient cars -- which fall under different classifications, such as hybrid, electric and electric-hybrid -- aren't expected to generate copious financial rewards for their respective automakers anytime soon.

"At this point, 'green' vehicles are much more sizzle than steak in my opinion," Craig-Hallum analyst Steven Dyer says. "They generally can't be made profitably until we ramp to much higher volumes, which I just don't see in a country of $2.50 to $3 a gallon gasoline." It's no surprise, then, that analysts have found it difficult to get sales volume estimates out of automakers these days "as they don't want to be held to those numbers," Edmunds.com analyst Michelle Krebs said.

Still, the impending launches of green cars like the Volt, Leaf and Karma have created quite a stir.

As UBS analyst Colin Langan points out, the Leaf and Volt, for example, are considered to be among the six most important vehicle launches of this year; all the money automakers have been pouring into these "green cars" may not reap immediate financial rewards, but that's a small price to pay for the dividends they could reap in the form of public perception.

"It is very important for companies to be seen as green and high tech," Krebs said. "New fuel economy and emission standards go into effect in the U.S. in 2016 which they must meet." She added that fuel economy is now "a hot button with consumers," and is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Read on for more about the most eagerly anticipated "green" cars of the year....

3. Nissan Leaf

Product Name: Nissan ( NSANY) Leaf

Anticipated Launch: December 2010

Price: As low as $25,280 with the help of a federal tax credit ($7,500 maximum) for plug-in electric vehicles.

Top Speed: 90+ mph

Horsepower: 107

Range: 100 miles on a single charge. Will charge on a regular 110/120V 20-Amp dedicated outlet. For home-charging, a charging dock on a 220/240V, 40A circuit is recommended.

Description: It's hard not to see why this zero-emission all-electric vehicle has reportedly already been sold out for this year through pre-orders: It's a lot cheaper than many of its peers; so that's one thing. It is also well appointed: smooth and chic with a driver support system that includes entertainment, temperature controls, navigation and auto-security. On the outside, the Leaf's alloy wheels are accompanied by chrome door handles and aerodynamic features.

Total Nissan Investment in Electric Vehicle Research and Development: Nissan has been one of the biggest spenders of the auto industry on electric vehicle programs. Analysts have put that figure at about $5.5 billion, which is clearly a dominated by the $4.5 billion annual research and development budget of the Leaf. Nissan has also been lent $1.6 billion by the government to develop fuel-efficiency programs.

The company's sizable investment is expected to play an important role in its future efforts in the green space. Edmunds' Krebs said the Nissan Leaf will be crucial for the company's image and "sets the stage for Nissan's electric future." Still, the question remains: "Will people by electric cars?" Krebs asks. "Where and how will the consumer re-charge it?"

Nissan's CEO, for one, has made big bets on a surge in electric vehicle demand; the company is building capacity for 500,000 electric vehicles by 2012, with the expectation that 10% of the global auto market will consist of electric vehicles by 2020. Meanwhile, Conley believes that Nissan will be able recoup its investment through market share gains and economies of scale.

2. Chevrolet Volt

Product Name: General Motors ( NSANY) Chevrolet Volt

Anticipated Launch: November, 2010

Estimated Price: Yet to be determined, though it has been confirmed that the vehicle will qualify for the $7,500 maximum federal tax credit for plug-in electric vehicles, helping customers subsidize the purchase cost. Consumer Reports has a base price range of $35,000 to $40,000.

Top Speed: 100 mph

Horsepower: 149 (estimated)

Range: 40 miles on battery power. When that runs out, the gas-powered electric generator will kick in and extend the range by up to 300 miles. Charging the Volt can be done through any standard 120V household outlet. A 240V charging station can also be installed in the garage.

Description: This gas-powered family car looks relatively unassuming from the outside; but its interior is both fun and futuristic, with sleek, white, iPod like controls, touch screens and color LCD displays.

Total GM Investment in Electric Vehicle Research and Development: According to analyst figures, GM has invested a little more than $1 billion in the Chevy Volt, without the help of government loans for fuel-efficiency programs.

"In terms of government loans, GM did not qualify for loans last year due to its bankruptcy," UBS's Colin Langan said. However, GM is likely to qualify for these loans in the future.

As with Nissan, GM's investment in its new car will be targeted more for the company's image than any profit marks, as immediate profits would be hard to attain, given the massive research and development costs involved in bringing the product to existence.

The Chevrolet Volt's "extended range is initially a technology image play for GM," Krebs said.

However, she expects that the Volt will eventually become more of a volume vehicle "as the underpinnings are used globally and with different models."

1. Fisker Karma

Product Name: Fisker Automotive Fisker Karma

Anticipated Launch: Late 2010

Starting Price: $87,900

Top Speed: 125 mph

Horsepower: 402 (est.)

Range: In electric-only battery mode, the car can travel up to 50 miles. In hybrid mode, the car has a total range of 300 miles.

Description: This four seat, "eco-chic," luxury sports sedan has got a sunroof that keeps the hybrid's temperature regulated and cool while parked. This is a zero-emissions car that uses sensual, environmentally friendly materials for its interior, while keeping the exterior lightweight. The car's alloy wheels and LED tail lamps capture the attention as well. Overall, the design is sculpted, futuristic, sleek, and wide and low with a long hood.

Fisker Automotive calls the Karma is the world's first luxury plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Total Fisker Investment in Electric Vehicle Research and Development: According to reports, Fisker Automotive, a joint-venture of Quantum Technologies ( QTWW)and Fisker Coachbuild, has raised about $300 million in private equity since it came into existence. The company also recently closed a Department of Energy loan for $528 million in April; bringing Fisker's overall research and development budget to about $830 million.

Fisker Automotive partners Quantum Technologies and Fisker Coachbuild announced their joint venture in Sept. 2007, with the former focused on the technology side of their company's green sports car development and the latter focused on the design side.

-- Reported by Andrea Tse in New York

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