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The prospect of mass-market electric cars moved closer yesterday with the launch of what is claimed to be New Zealand's first commercially available electric vehicle.

Environment Minister Nick Smith, who went for a spin in the Blade Electron, also said the Government plans to waive road-user charges on electric vehicles. The per-kilometre charges on vehicles like the Electron are higher than the cost of the electricity they consume.

The Blade Electron is a Hyundai Getz retrofitted with an electric motor, speed controller and lithium iron phosphate batteries by Australian company Blade Electric Vehicles. The plug-in car has a top speed of about 110km/h, a range of around 120km and can be charged in as little as five minutes, although fast charging shortens battery life.

Each charge will consume about 15 kilowatt hours of power, costing about $3.45 or roughly 3c per kilometre. Auckland University researchers are working on a cordless or "inductive" charging system for the vehicle.

At present electric vehicles are classed as diesels for the purpose of road-user charges, resulting in a cost of about 4.5c per km.

However, Dr Smith said the Government was aware of the higher cost of "frontier technology" like electric cars and the Government would be making electric cars "exempt from road-user charges".

Its price tag of $45,000 to $50,000 means the Blade is unlikely to find many buyers outside of enthusiasts but with three already on the road here, and the prospect of further sales, it is hoped that early adopters will provide useful data for the manufacturer and agencies involved in planning infrastructure for the fledgling technology.

The launch of the Blade yesterday coincided with the start of trials of the Mitsubishi iMiEV, billed as "the first mass-produced, new-generation electric vehicle to come to New Zealand".

Mitsubishi NZ has secured two prototypes of the four-door hatchback which has a maximum speed of 130km/h and a range of up to 160km. The vehicles will be evaluated and demonstrated around the country over the next two months.