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Alternative-energy cars snap, crackle, pop at Chicago Auto Show

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The stars of the electric-car world — the Chevy Volt and the Nissan LEAF — share the Chicago Auto Show stage with seven other electrics, 30 hybrids and a dozen diesel-fuel vehicles in the largest collection of alternative-energy vehicles in the show’s history.

The show opens to the public today.

Showgoers should be on the lookout for the Nissan LEAF, the no-gasoline plug-in electic car. Some 20,000 will be distributed to buyers by late summer. Production will ramp up to 150,000 by the end of 2012 after an existing Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., is expanded to include battery production, said spokesman Ken Paul.

Electric enthusiasts should keep their ears perked up for three more models from Nissan.

In 15 years, energy-recovery technology will be inside every car, said auto-market analyst Philip Gott, managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting.

“We will see all sorts of incremental improvements in the next 15 years. It will be a combination of engines, energy recovery, lighter weights, better tires and better bearings in the driveline,” Gott said. “When you look at these cars, you are looking at the future.”

The emergence of the alternative technologies is typified by Toyota, which is showing off four new models of its 10-year-old original Prius. The Prius runs on electricity until it hits 18 mph, at which time an internal combustion engine kicks in. More than 1 million Americans have bought a Prius since it was introduced.

By 2012, car buyers can choose among these other models: The Prius V, 4 inches longer and with 60 percent more cargo space than the original Prius, which will debut this summer; the 2012 Plug-In Hybrid, which will run on a lithium-ion battery rather than the original nickel metal hydride battery and can travel up to 13 miles on electricity; a yet-unnamed concept Prius that is smaller and sportier than the original, and the 2012 RAV4, a purely electric SUV designed in partnership with automaker Tesla that will boast a 100-mile driving range.

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