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Electric cars join racing scene

McClatchy Newspapers


Japanese automakers are entering electric race cars in global events, hoping that victories will boost sales of the passenger vehicles the race cars are based on.

Car races provide world-class venues to showcase the performance of Japan-made electric vehicles, and automakers are scrambling to develop high-performance electric cars that can compete.

Earlier this month, the i-MiEV Evolution was seen cornering smoothly at a Mitsubishi Motors Corp. test course in Okazaki, Japan. The race car, based on Mitsubishi's i-MiEV electric hatchback, went from zero to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds.

The Evolution is scheduled to contest the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in July, an annual race to the Colorado summit. Former rally driver Hiroshi Masuoka said his plan is to take advantage of the Evolution's transmission-free engine, which allows it to quickly reach top speed.

A previously unmatched seven electric vehicles will join the race. Five are Japanese teams.

The Toyota Group is employing technology it has nurtured in car development for Formula One races, the pinnacle of the racing world. Actor Sho Aikawa, who will lead the Toyota team in the July race, said electric cars have become indispensable in motor sports.

Automakers hope to show that the biggest weakness of electric vehicles (shorter cruising distances than gas-driven cars) has been overcome. They aim to boost sales of electric vehicles and improve opportunities for parts makers.

The biggest racing challenge has been trimming battery weight, said to be the heaviest part in an electric car, while increasing power-storage capacity.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, whose battery runs the Team APEV car, hopes for a steppingstone into the battery business for passenger cars. Meidensha Corp., producer of the motor in the Evolution, seeks development of lighter, higher-powered motors.