Renault promises to build "a range of electric vehicles" beginning with a sedan it's betting will electrify Israel's vehicle fleet and says it will bring an EV to America within two years.

The car Renault unveiled Sunday in Tel Aviv with Silicon Valley start-up Project Better Place was just a prototype with a cobbled-together battery, but the French automaker reportedly is prepared to spend as much as $1 billion developing EVs. Company CEO Carlos Ghosn hasn't confirmed that figure but says Nissan, which Renault owns, will offer an electric vehicle in California by 2010.

"This will not be a Star Wars prototype," he says. "It will be a car for sale."

Ghosn told the Telegraph he wants to build "a sexy electric car that will be fin to drive and without the environmental hit."

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The Nissan joins BMW, Audi, Mitsubishi and Subaru in developing EVs for America in part to meet California rules that automakers put 7,500 zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2014. But the automaker doesn't plan to make electrics a mere sideline - Ghosn says Renault and Nissan are committed to "becoming a global leader" in the production of affordable electric cars.

They're off to a strong start. Renault and Nissan signed a deal with Project Better Place in January to bring EVs to Israel. Renault will build the cars and Project Better Place will install 500,000 charging stations and 150 battery exchange depots throughout Israel.

The cars will use lithium-ion batteries developed by Nissan through its joint venture with NEC, although some may be fitted with batteries from A123 Systems. The batteries weigh about 400 pounds, and Renault says they'll provide a range of about 125 miles. The company plans to have several hundred EVs on the road in Israel within a year. Shai Agassi, who founded Project Better Place after leaving software giant SAP, says the start-up plans to use solar energy generated in the Negev Desert to power the vehicles.

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Project Better Place has raised $200 million to finance the project, and the Israeli government has promised big tax breaks for electric vehicles. Denmark has signed on to Agassi's plan and hopes to begin offering electric cars by 2011. The Israeli newspaper Globes says an undisclosed Persian Gulf state is negotiating a similar arrangement.

These deals will only help Renault and Nissan develop the "range of electric vehicles" Ghosn has promised. According to the Sunday Times, he considers EVs the most important development within the auto industry and says Israel is the ideal place to launch them because it's a small country where people make short trips. He expects the first electric Nissans to be available to fleets in 2010 and to the mass-market by 2012.

Main photo: Associated Press. Second photo: Project Better Place.