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$4 gas recharges interest in electric cars

– Just when it looked like electric cars were running out of juice, the return of $4-a-gallon gasoline is generating new life for battery-powered vehicles.

Electric-drive vehicles, including hybrids, plug-in models and purely battery-powered cars, were the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. auto market in the first quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Sales of those models rose 49 percent to 117,182 vehicles in the first quarter, from 78,527 a year earlier before Japan’s earthquake and tsunami pinched output.

Electric cars and hybrids are surging in tandem with gas prices, which averaged $3.93 a gallon on April 3, approaching the July 2008 peak of $4.11, according to AAA. Toyota’s Prius hybrid and General Motors’s Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid electric car each had record sales in March. Nissan Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn repeated he’s “bullish” that pure electric cars will capture 10 percent of the market by 2020.

“There are a lot of concerns today that the electric car is going to solve,” Ghosn said Wednesday at the New York auto show. “People don’t want to have to go to the gasoline station. They just want to fill their tank at home. They want to make sure they’re not paying too much money for their gasoline bill every month.”

Sales of the Nissan Leaf electric car will take off in August when Nissan begins producing it in the U.S., boosting output and possibly lowering prices, Ghosn said.

Ghosn’s view of one in 10 cars being electric by 2020 isn’t widely shared. LMC Automotive predicts 2 percent of cars in the United States will be electric by 2020. Add in gasoline-electric hybrids and plug-ins and the Troy, Mich., researcher’s forecast rises to 9.2 percent.

GM had halted Volt production for five weeks because of sluggish sales after a federal investigation into fires in the car’s battery, which resulted in the vehicle getting a clean bill of health.

Rising sales last month spurred GM to restart Volt production one week earlier than planned. GM sold 2,289 Volts in March, a record monthly total for the car. The previous high was 1,529 deliveries in December.

“We’re adding a week back and that’s all you need to know,” Mark Reuss, GM’s North American chief, said Wednesday in New York, showing a flash of anger over a car that has become a lightning rod for critics of government bailouts, including GM’s, in 2009. “We’re doing it because we sold a lot.”