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Japan discovers electric cars. Is it doomsday for EV start-ups?

Subaru is set to show off an electric car prototype. Nissan has plans for EVs. With big names discovering electric cars, how long can the new guys last?

Subaru, one of the more popular car companies with the green set, is going to show off an electric car prototype at the Tokyo Auto Show later this month in what could be a prelude to coming out with a car commercially.

The G4e concept is a triangular-shaped thing, but it has four wheels (unlike the triangular three-wheeled Xebra from Zap.) The G4e will accommodate five passengers, and the batteries will be stored in the floor.

Subaru's G4e concept car. Subaru

The lithium-ion batteries in the car will carry it for 200 kilometers, or 125 miles. That puts it in the same sort of range as cars coming from Think, Miles Automotive and some of the other electric car start-ups.

Subaru has not said whether it will come out with the car or not. Rival Nissan, however, has said it wants to start mass producing electric cars in 2011 or 2012. Like Subaru, Nissan is looking at economy cars, rather than sports cars, when it comes to electrics.

No one knows yet whether consumers will go for cars that go under 200 miles on a charge. In fact, getting consumers to understand, and act on, the town car concept is going to take a lot of marketing and work, Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president and general manager of the Technology Development Division at Nissan, told CNET during a meeting last week.

Electric cars "are not a replacement of traditional vehicles," he said.

Still, the bad news for Think, Miles, Zap, and even companies noodling toward sedans like Tesla, is that the big manufacturers are interested. There's more to making electric cars than designing batteries. It also involves building huge, expensive factories, setting up a dealer network, and getting volume discounts on things like plastic electric window switches. These are the kinds of logistical problems that big manufacturers have down cold--and that start-ups will have trouble matching.

Then there are the crash-testing procedures. There's a lot of expertise in the established manufacturers there. Both Tesla and Phoenix Motorcars have had to delay releases because of testing. When customers walk into a showroom, will they be more comfortable getting behind the wheel of a Subaru, or some car company that just got formed a few years ago? Think about it. These are some of the many reasons you don't see new car companies popping up all the time. Two words: Rosen Motors.

Granted, large manufacturers move slowly and can get tied up in bureaucratic knots. But when it comes to those grubby mundane issues like distribution and cost-cutting, they are going to be tough to beat.