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Detroit Electric resurrected as $25,000 electric car

Detroit Electric, a company that combines European engineering, Asian manufacturing, and an American brand, announces a deal to produce and sell electric sedans next year.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Detroit Electric, an auto brand once favored by Thomas Edison, is mounting a 21st century comeback with electric cars aimed at U.S. soccer moms and Chinese city dwellers.

The company on Monday is expected to announce a partnership with Malaysian auto manufacturer Proton Holdings to introduce an all-electric sedan next year.

Detroit Electric will offer a compact four-door, based on an existing Proton model, with a range of 180 kilometers (110 miles), for between $24,000 and $26,000. An extended-range option will go 320 kilometers, or about 200 miles, and cost $4,000 to $5,000 more. The company also plans to make a hatchback.

The car will use lithium-polymer batteries supplied by a Korean manufacturer and run on an engine developed by Detroit Electric's Netherlands-based engineering team.

The company will market the cars in China, Europe, and the U.S. as an everyday vehicle, comparable in size and performance to popular gasoline cars, said Albert Lam, the CEO of Detroit Electric and the former CEO at British sports car designer Lotus Engineering.

"In 2007, we adopted the Detroit Electric name and revived it because it brings us in line with the vision and essence of electric driving they had," Lam said on Friday. "We want to produce an affordable, practical pure electric car."

Detroit Electric's planned all-electric sedan will have a range of 110 miles and a top speed of 110 miles per hour. Detroit Electric

In early part of the 20th century, Detroit Electric was one of a number of electric car manufacturers. These cars drove only about 20 miles per hour and had limited range but were considered suitable for city use and, by some, easier to drive than gasoline cars, which required a manual start.

In 1900, 28 percent of all cars produced were electric, but 20 years later the industry was all but dead, according to Michael Brian Schiffer, author of a history of electric cars in the U.S. The original Detroit Electric went out of business in the 1930s.

A century later, nearly all automakers are developing all-electric or hybrid cars aimed at mainstream buyers, which will start coming out next year.

Detroit Electric, though, is taking a different route than established auto companies, choosing a business model that relies on contract manufacturing and a network of partnerships, according to Lam.

Virtual corporation
Rather than build cars itself, Detroit Electric's engine and battery pack will be fitted onto Proton's existing cars and manufactured in Malaysia by Proton. Detroit Electric will modify the styling to distinguish its cars.

Albert Lam, CEO of Detroit Electric. Martin LaMonica/CNET

"Contract manufacturing is the future of the auto industry," Lam said. The business model will allow it to bring cars to market faster and eliminate the need to raise the money to build those facilities, Lam said.

The electric motor and controller offer are relatively light weight at 18 kilograms for 200 horsepower and designed with very few components, he said.

The cars will first be launched in Europe and China in the first quarter of 2010 and then made available in the U.S. by the third quarter of the year, he said. That's a delay from the 2009 target the company set last year to deliver both electric sedans and trucks when it announced its production plans.

In terms of performance, the cars will have the peppy acceleration typical of electric powertrains, going from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 8 seconds. The top speed will be 110 miles per hour and they will seat five people.

The company plans to establish dealer networks in the U.S., China, and Europe and position their cars as electric alternatives to popular sedans, according to Marianne McInerney, North American president of Detroit Electric.

An oft-cited statistic is that most U.S. citizens don't drive more than 40 miles in a day, which this car will allow people do do, she noted. "This car has been designed to appeal to appeal to the broadest audience possible."

In its first year, the company plans to manufacture 40,000 cars a year and increase volume from there, Lam said. He added that the company is in discussions with other manufacturers in Asia.

A signing ceremony in Kuala Lumpur to mark the partnership with Proton, whose majority shareholder is the Malaysian government, will be attended by Malaysia's prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who has driven an early Detroit Electric prototype.

A 1914 Detroit Electric which was owned by electricity pioneer Charles Steinmetz. Martin LaMonica/CNET