By early next year at least nine cars with CO2 emissions of less than 75g/km will be locked in a new era of showroom competition, each with a £5,000 discount off list price financed by taxpayers.
The Government has played its part in raising interest in ultra-low emission vehicles and manufacturers are exploiting their marketing skills.
But it will be up to dealers to sell those cars that are not sent directly to companies on leases.
Most in the industry expect a struggle to start-up the sector of cars qualifying for a plug-in grant.
Early evidence came this month with a poll at AM online which asked: “Will the £5,000 plug-in car grant be enough to help electric vehicles take off as a long-term retail proposition?”. The verdict: 95% who took part said it would not.
Somehow, manufacturers and their dealers will jump-start a market for pricey cars with promised low running costs.
The challenge is to coax buyers and leasers away from other models with increasingly efficient engines.
Manufacturers are appointing a minority of their dealers to handle sales and aftersales. Most, logically, will be where demand is thought to be greatest – urban areas with recharging points springing up.
This month the first three plug-in grant models arrived in showrooms: the Mitsubishi iMiEV and the iOn, Peugeot’s equivalent, plus Smart’s ForTwo electric drive.
Carmakers are saying that any discounting beyond the grant will be left to dealers.
The five-door i-MiEV was the first mass-produced electric car in UK showrooms. From March Nissan dealers will start selling its five-door Leaf, the European Car of the Year.
It will be built at Sunderland from 2013.
Nissan says it had more than 500 UK orders for the Leaf by early this month with an even split between retail and fleet.
During January and February the 24 Nissan dealerships equipped to sell and service the Leaf are staging events for confirmed buyers and prospects.
Each outlet will have a Leaf relationship manager and a fast-charger to provide up to 80% capacity in 30 minutes.
Where EV chargers qualify for grants they will be available for anyone to use, “otherwise not necessarily,” a Nissan spokesman said.
“The biggest concerns among dealers are the preparation of the appropriate electrical infrastructure. They are not yet aware of the detail of the Government support.”
Peugeot, whose iOn was with dealers ahead of PSA Group sibling Citroën’s C-Zero, is upbeat. By Christmas it had 100 UK orders and expects 500 registrations this year (almost all on lease).
Peugeot UK fleet director Phil Robson said: “Each iOn dealer will install a charging point for use by staff and customers only. Dealers’ concerns are based on initial costs, speed of return on investment and available volumes of EVs during 2011.
“We expect 99% of this year’s iOns to go to companies, with 95% leased.”
Citroën UK was this month expecting to announce the 10 electric vehicle specialist dealers selected from its franchised network of 189 to handle the C-Zero. Each will have a charging point reserved for C-Zero customers.
John Handcock, Citroën UK spokesman, said: “The market for EVs in the UK is likely to be relatively small during 2011 with significant growth in subsequent years as the technology gains greater acceptance. We expect to sell 200 to 300 C-Zeros this year.”
By mid-January Citroën had received more than 600 online enquiries about the C-Zero and “a number” of confirmed orders.
“We are receiving an increasing volume of enquiries from prospective customers and a significant number of discussions are ongoing with key fleet decision makers,” said Handcock.
Smart is an EV veteran. It trialled 100 electric drive cars in 1997 and last year 100 individuals tested new-shape ForTwo EVs. Eleven of Smart’s 77 dealers will lease around 100 Smart electric drive units ahead of a bigger programme in 2012.
Debbie Hull, Smart UK spokesman, said: “Almost half of our 2011 allocation had been allocated to customers by the end of last year.”
She said charging points were in place at six dealerships.
Tata Motors, the Jaguar Land Rover owner, is building its Vista electric car in the West Midlands (annual capacity 1,500 units on one shift) and 25 are going to customers for a 12-month trial. The Vista will be launched in the UK in March to fleets only.
In early 2012 GM will launch its pair of extended-range models, the Chevrolet Volt and the Vauxhall Ampera developed from it.
Chevrolet UK says all its dealers will be able to take orders for Volts and act as an agent.
A Chevrolet UK spokesman said: “Appointing bespoke dealers will depend on geographical factors and perceived demand.
"We will focus on retail and individual leasing and lease or sell as many Volts as we can get. The Volt is the most important car of the 21st century, and one that will change the face of motoring.”
Ian Allen, Vauxhall’s environmental affairs manager, said: “We are more than a year away from the UK launch of the Ampera, but there has been a huge amount of interest in it.”
Vauxhall will market the Ampera as “the first plug-in electric vehicle for every day family driving” because it has a petrol engine to charge the batteries.
Mitsubishi on the charge in UK electric vehicle market
Mitsubishi, lead manufacturer in the fledgling UK electric vehicle market, has named the 13 dealerships selling its i-MiEV.
But its entire franchised network of 118 outlets are now EV service centres and can provide aftersales cover.
Lance Bradley, Mitsubishi UK managing director, said: “Mitsubishi intends to promote and establish electric vehicles in the UK.
"We have the first mass-produced fully electric vehicle in the UK market which puts us at the forefront of a new era in the automotive industry.”
Bradley said all Mitsubishi EV sales centres have one i-MiEV for showroom display and two demonstrators for potential customers to borrow. Each centre has a charging bay.
Mitsubishi said it had taken “several orders” for the i-MiEV since last August through its National Electric Vehicle Centre in London, from retailers, small businesses and large fleets including local councils.
Dealers are telling potential customers that the i-MiEVFuel costs only £270 to ‘fuel’ 12,000 miles’ driving (£2.09 on average for a full charge).
Mitsubishi reckons the cost of a charge when using an Economy 7 tariff could be as little as £1.35.
Servicing costs and downtime are low, said Mitsubishi, because the EV has only about four working parts.
Other cost benefits include first-year capital allowances for fleet vehicles, zero benefit-in-kind company car tax, and exemption from both road tax and London’s congestion charge (£8 a day). Mitsubishi says its EV has a 43% residual value after three years and 30,000 miles.
Mitsubishi’s EV sales points are its Electric Vehicle Centre in London, Phoenix Mitsubishi Edinburgh, Motor Wey Putney (London), Manchester Mitsubishi, Hodgson Mitsubishi (Newcastle upon Tyne), Souls Mitsubishi (Milton Keynes), Fields Mitsubishi (Bromsgrove), Fife Mitsubishi, Livery Dole (Exeter), Tees Valley (Darlington), K&R Mitsubishi (Taunton), Donnelly Brothers (Belfast) and Eastbourne Mitsubishi. See p12 for more details.