I knew something was up when Chevy initially announced its 2014 Spark electric car at something like 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon—that’s not how you get the best out of the news cycle.


General Motors bet just about everything on its Volt plug-in hybrid—and it’s working. Last month, GM sold a respectable 2,961 Volts nationwide, and the trajectory is up. The car’s sales have been helped by massive publicity and marketing investment. But now the Spark is on the stand at the Los Angeles Auto Show, and it’s rolling out quietly, with a price and marketing plan that’s likely to keep it in a small niche.


Two EVs shown in LA, the 2014 Spark and the Fiat 500e, tell the story of “compliance cars.” GM and Chrysler need zero-emission cars to comply with California’s rules for major manufacturers selling vehicles in the state. They don’t have to sell them elsewhere, so the programs can be small, and they’re building them on existing cars, so the investment isn’t too big. The only problem is that there’s not a huge reason for consumers to seek them out, when companies like Nissan (which sold 1,579 Leafs in October) are putting in so much more effort.


The Spark (left), a plug-in version of GM’s cute Korean-designed mini-car, is initially aimed only at California, Oregon, Canada and South Korea. It has a 130-horsepower, 100-kilowatt electric motor and a 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. GM isn’t being specific about range, though it claims numbers “among the best.” A bright spot is that the car could be the first on the market set up for 20-minute fast charging using the new American SAE “combo” standard—just one plug for 240- and 480-volt charging.


There were some breathless stories about the Spark EV selling for $25,000 (approximately the price of the new Smart Electric Drive), but that’s misleading. In fact, the car is around $33,000, and the $7,500 federal income tax credit takes it down in that ballpark. Since you can gain entry to the gas Spark at $13,000, that’s quite an electric premium.


The Fiat 500e will probably be scarce nationally, too. They’re talking about 80-mile range, with a 111-horsepower electric motor and 24-kilowatt-hour li-ion battery pack. Like the Spark, it’s rolling out first in California, and we’ll see what happens after that. Chrysler/Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said—maybe he was joking—that his company will lose $10,000 on every 500e.


Information on the 500e (interior at right) has always been hard to come by, and Fiat execs often looked exasperated when you brought the car up. But it’s finally on our doorstep, as a compliance car. Expect the first California deliveries in the second quarter of 2013.


Now Fiat is talking. “The Fiat 500e offers iconic Italian design and a great combination of performance and range, with battery technology that delivers consistent performance across all weather conditions,” said Tim Kuniskis, head of the Fiat brand in the U.S. But the 500e is not enabled for fast charging, as far as I can tell.


Here's some nice video footage of the 500e on the road:


2013 Fiat 500e Running Footage by AutoMotoTV


Brad Berman, who (like me) writes for the New York Times and PlugInCars.com, is more sanguine than I am about these gritted-teeth rollouts. “I have a somewhat contrary view about the entire issue of ‘compliance cars,’” he said. “I see California’s zero emission mandates as a good thing, and see nothing wrong with carmakers complying with it. Each carmaker is obviously free to draw its own conclusions about how active they want to be in the emerging plug-in market. 


“California, and the states that follow California rules, are making sure that every auto manufacturer at the very least begins the process of producing and selling vehicles that have no tailpipe emissions. That’s good for consumers, ultimately good for carmakers in my opinion, and especially good for everybody that breathes air in California. No harm, no foul. Who knows what lurks in the heart of product planners at Fiat, GM and Honda [which produced an electric “compliance” version of the Fit]? It doesn't matter. The EV market is in its infancy, and is very likely to grow with more product offerings and more volume. It’s early days.”


It is indeed, and the electric car market is still forming and shaping. It’s fascinating to watch, because new entries are coming fast and furiously. For instance, in Los Angeles BMW unveiled its i3 Concept Coupe, a styling exercise that complements the similar i8 convertible I saw (with Uma Thurman!) in New York.

The carbon-fiber-bodied i3 four-door is going into production next year, but this concept coupe is a big maybe. It’s cute enough, but I need the four doors.


The BMW i3 is definitely not a compliance car. The company is really serious about inventing a new form of urban mobility, and has invested a fortune in lightweight carbon fiber as part of that effort. It will put the company's full clout behind the marketing of its new eDrive cars (the i8 plug-in hybrid is slated for 2014), and that will be readily apparent.


Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

At L.A. Auto Show, Chevy and Fiat roll out EVs aimed at California
The plug-in Chevy Spark and Fiat 500e are designed to meet California zero-emission laws. And if you buy one, well, that's OK, too.