01/12/2012 07:00 EST | Updated 03/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Montreal International Auto Show: Electric Cars Making Inroads, Says Organizer

MONTREAL - Electric cars are still a rarity on the highway but the president of Montreal's International Auto Show says they're steadily making inroads.

Pascal Dandurand, the boss of the 2012 edition of the annual car show which opens Friday, agrees electric cars are getting more popular with consumers.

"Are they there yet?" said Dandurand. "I can't say, but eventually they will occupy a very important place in the market."

In the meantime, Dandurand says manufacturers have been working hard to satisfy demands for better gas mileage.

"All manufacturers want to answer customers' demands for reduction of the cost of running a vehicle and they're developing technologies to deal with that," he said.

Electric cars still are way behind sales of traditional gas-powered vehicles but the head of the Automobile Protection Association says he's encouraged by the announcement at the show of Canada's first public charging stations for the cars.

Called the Electric Circuit, the 240-volt charging stations for plug-in electric vehicles will be available in the spring in the Montreal and Quebec City area.

The first batch of 90 charging stations will cost $2.50 per use and be set up outside stores belonging a popular grocery chain, the St-Hubert restaurant chain, RONA hardware stores as well as in commuter train station parking lots.

"They've gone ahead of the market," Iny said of the effort, adding that he doesn't expect plug-in vehicles to be a very large share of the automobile market for several years.

"You're looking at another four of five years — if not longer," he said.

Iny noted this year's edition of the car show, which runs until Jan. 22, seems to be all about "economy and value."

He noted that Japanese carmakers are now rebuilding their inventories after natural disasters that slowed down production and that will translate into benefits for consumers.

"For consumers, that means they've held the line on prices even though the Yen is overvalued, and we're seeing some very attractive vehicles," Iny said.

Iny said he was surprised when looking at the latest model of the Japanese Honda Fit subcompact to discover that the $20,000 vehicle was made in China.

"As far as I know, this is the first vehicle available that's made in China for consumers to buy in Canada," he said.

And it could be the start of a trend.

"I'm convinced if this works — and we have every reason to believe that it will — other (Japanese) carmakers will follow suit," Iny said.

During his visit, Iny observed a noticeable improvement in the show offerings, with car models now being lighter and more fuel efficient.

"Two or three years ago, APA. was kind of disappointed because every new vehicle was heavier than the model it was replacing, had a bigger more powerful engine and used just a little bit more fuel," he said.

"We're now seeing that manufacturers have reined that in and so the new conventional models are coming out with better and more efficient power trains."

Iny says compact cars are still the way to go for most buyers — especially those in markets that stretch from Ontario to eastern Canada.

"The compact car is probably the best overall package in terms of efficiency, space, economy and low purchase price," he said.