Daimler plans electric Smart minicar for China image

Daimler AG plans to start a pilot program for an electric version of its Smart minicar in China next year, joining a growing list of firms evaluating the potential for next-generation clean-energy vehicles in the world’s biggest automobile market.

Chinese auto makers such as BYD Co., which plans to market all-electric battery cars and other clean-energy cars, say government subsidies are key if pricey alternative-energy vehicles are to be feasible in China on a large scale for consumers and producers.

The German auto maker’s move highlights the potential it sees in China for all-electric and other new-energy cars.

“We think there are opportunities for electric [vehicles] in China and we are exploring opportunities,” Beijing-based spokesman Trevor Hale said.

Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz unit currently sells the S400 Hybrid in China, which is based on conventional hybrid technology. Electric vehicles and plug-in cars use newer technology that allows vehicles to be driven exclusively or primarily on electricity.

Nissan Motor Co. said in November it plans to test-market its Leaf electric in China in 2011 by making it available to government agencies and other fleet customers in the city of Wuhan.

General Motors Co. intends to launch the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle Chevrolet Volt in China, starting in 2011. The Volt is powered by lithium-ion batteries and is supplemented by a gasoline engine.

Toyota Motor Corp. has also said it will likely test-market a plug-in hybrid in China.