Javier Bonilla has been tinkering with alternative-fuel cars for several years. Bonilla, a lead mechanic at the National Training Institute, or INA, instructs the country’s licensed mechanics on upkeep for the latest automobiles, and hybrid and electric vehicles have been on Bonilla’s mind lately.
His organization has even built its own electric car prototypes to better recognize how the technology works. This year, Bonilla and his colleagues will experiment with solar panels, fixing them to cars and creating a vehicle that controls windshield wipers and lights through solar energy.
“We are innovating in this area,” Bonilla said. “We’re exploring, developing new ways [of looking at the cars].”
INA’s innovations represent the institute’s fascination with hybrid and electric cars, and the organization’s expectations that alternative-energy cars will continue to carve out a growing niche in Costa Rica.
Gas-electric hybrid cars first arrived in the country in 2004, in the form of Toyota’s top-selling Prius. Electric cars followed in 2009, with the arrival of the Reva from India. In 2011, the local Mitsubishi dealership began selling the i-MiEV, a vehicle that reached Costa Rican markets before the United States, China or the rest of Latin America.
Bonilla also has noticed a rise in car owners importing used hybrid cars via the U.S., such as the Japanese-made Honda hybrids and Toyota’s Prius.
In 2012, car dealerships will promote more clean energy options in Costa Rica, although doing so can be a challenge. Choices are limited. The cars remain expensive in the country, costing sometimes $2,000 more than what they go for in the U.S. Still, the value of fuel-efficient automobiles is considered spectacular, Bonilla said, because hybrids require less maintenance, have simpler diagnostics and technology is top-of-the-line.
But Bonilla acknowledged that the vehicles remain too expensive for most Costa Rican residents. He hopes that if the cars’ popularity keeps growing, the Costa Rican government will strengthen efforts to make the cars more affordable.
Bonilla added that dealerships also could start promoting cheaper, used hybrid options. A new hybrid costs approximately $40,000 in Costa Rica, while a used version could go for $20,000 or less.
The trouble with electric-only cars such as the Reva and i-MiEV is their limited battery life, and the lack of charging stations in the country. The vehicles take only 40 minutes to charge, which easily can be done in an owner’s garage. But for longer trips from the capital to areas of the country like Puntarenas, a driver will not be able to find a recharging station, making the electric models more suitable for city driving.
The lack of available models can be an obstacle, too. Costa Rica has a Nissan dealership, but the retailer doesn’t offer the electric Nissan Leaf. The Honda dealership here does not have any of the brand’s hybrid models.
Victor Morgan, marketing manager of Purdy Motor Costa Rica, said that currently 180 Prii – Toyota’s plural for Prius – circulate in the country. New models of the cars will be arriving at the dealership this year.
“[We] have been working to provide environmentally friendly solutions, and all our hybrid models have advanced clean technology, so in turn we have been growing in that area,” said Morgan in an email.
Purdy will introduce the Prius C, a more compact version of the brand, to Costa Rican drivers in upcoming months. The hybrid sedan version of the Toyota Camry will also be available in 2012, according to Morgan.
INA is banking on those cars finding owners. In 2011, the organization held seminars for some 60 mechanics, teaching them how to evaluate hybrid and electric vehicles. This year, Bonilla will give intensive training classes to 15 mechanics on how to understand and repair hybrids.
Fifteen apprentices are a cautious number, representing enough mechanics to service the number of clean-energy vehicles in the country. The upcoming automobile fair Expomóvil (see story, Page 9), Bonilla believes, will be significant in determining how evident a role hybrid and electric cars will have in Costa Rica’s future.
“We will have a thermometer to see who is marketing electric and hybrid vehicles,” Bonilla said.