Staff Reporter

There’s a new electric vehicle on the block but you might never know it.

American Honda Motor Co. debuted its new EV-Plus car at three Southern California dealerships last month, but with little of the fanfare that marked the Dec. 5 rollout of General Motors Corp.’s EV-1.

In large part, that’s because you can’t drive away with an EV-Plus yet the car will stay in the showroom until May. Even then, it will only be available for lease at $500 a month not purchase.

Southern California dealers will begin taking lease applications this month and interested customers may want to get in line soon Honda officials say just 300 of the cars will be sold in the next three years as the company formulates a long-term development and sales strategy for its electric cars.

The EV-Plus differs from the EV-1 in several ways. The Honda seats four and is aimed at a family market, while the two-seater GM car is sportier and aimed at a performance-oriented crowd. The Honda model also uses a more advanced battery than GM’s, which gives the EV-Plus a range of 84 to 100 miles per charge vs. 70 to 90 miles for the EV-1.

“General Motors says, ‘The electric car is here,’ and in one sense it is here. But whether or not it will be a major choice for consumers has yet to be evaluated,” said Robert Bienenfeld, alternative fuel task force manager for American Honda, explaining Honda’s more cautious approach to its electric car program.

Honda’s cars can be seen and test-driven at three Southern California dealerships Miller Honda in Van Nuys, Scott Robinson Honda in Torrance, and Costa Mesa Honda.

Inquiries about the EV-Plus have been brisk so far at Scott Robinson Honda, according to general manager Jeff Robinson. He estimated receiving 15 to 20 inquiries during its first week on the lot, with four or five people coming in for test drives.

Because of its limited production, customers wishing to lease an EV-Plus will have to fill out an application and be approved before entering the program. Applications are not yet available, though they should be out in the next one to three weeks, Robinson said.

While the EV-Plus takes its first baby steps, sales for the General Motors EV-1 have been chugging along in the car’s first two months on the market, according to Necole Merritt, Southern California spokeswoman for Saturn, the GM division that is marketing the cars.

More than 100 EV-1s had been leased in Southern California and Arizona as of late January, according to Merritt.

“We’ve gotten very positive comments from people. They’ve enjoyed the performance and the attention they’re getting,” she said.

After Saturn and Honda, the next two car makers with plans to introduce electric vehicles are Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp., according to John Dunlap, chairman of the board for the California Air Resources Board.

Ford has announced plans to produce an electric Ranger pickup truck beginning this November, while Toyota has plans to launch an electric-powered sports utility vehicle this fall.

Meanwhile, Chrysler Corp. has said it will introduce an electric Dodge Caravan minivan by 1998, and Mazda Motor Corp. has announced it will build an electric version of its Miata sports car, though it has yet to specify a launch date.

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