Electric Reality Check
Now that the first two "mass market" electric vehicles -- the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf -- are officially on sale, should you join the early adopters?
EVs are the greenest of the green vehicles available today. They're pricey, but in exchange for the stiff upfront cost, you get a virtually pollution-free vehicle, off-the-charts fuel economy and reduced maintenance. Uncle Sam offers a $7,500 tax credit, and several states have their own credits and rebates.
Not so fast. Waiting lists for the Volt and Leaf are long, and sales are confined to just a few areas of the country. The Volt will initially be sold only in California, the New York City metropolitan area, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Tex., with the rest of New York and Texas, plus New Jersey, Michigan and Connecticut to be added soon after. Production will be limited to about 10,000 in 2011. Global production of the Leaf in the coming year will be capped at 50,000, and early sales will be limited to seven states: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. By April, sales will include seven more states, plus Washington, D.C.
If you manage to snag one, you'll need a charging dock installed in your home. It takes eight hours to fully charge the Leaf at a 220-volt dock; the Volt charges in four hours. Nissan says the average cost, including the unit and installation, is about $2,200, but the feds offer a tax credit of up to $2,000 on purchase and installation. If your home was built before 1990, you may need to upgrade your system to handle more amps, and it may be a hassle to get the necessary permits and inspections.
Another concern for EV buyers is range. The Leaf, for example, can go just 73 miles on a charge, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, but light-footed drivers should be able to go farther. For most drivers, "range anxiety" shouldn't be a problem; according to Nissan, 72% of typical consumers drive fewer than 50 miles per day during the week. The Volt can travel 379 miles because it has a gasoline engine that generates electricity after the battery runs out of juice.
On the road. On a recent test drive, the Leaf (starting price: $32,780) made good on the promise of instant torque delivery, easily zipping up to highway speeds. With no gas engine, the only noise comes from the road and a slight whine from the electric motor. Off the highway, the small hatchback negotiates curves with ease. There's no drop in throttle powering up hills, and the brakes don't waver on the way down. Inside, there's plenty of room for five adults. At its EPA-rated 99-miles-per-gallon equivalent, the Leaf costs $396 a year to charge --- assuming you pay 11 cents per kilowatt-hour and drive 15,000 miles. (The Toyota Prius, which gets 50 mpg combined, costs $900 per year to fuel with gas at $3 a gallon.)
The Volt ($41,000) offers about 35 miles of pure EV driving, and after that a gas engine kicks in. The production model kept much of the concept car's cool, with a sleek exterior and futuristic interior that seats four. Tight handling, good road feel and decent speed add to the package. In a mix of battery and gas-engine-assisted driving, the EPA expects the Volt to get 60 mpg, for an annual fueling cost of less than $1,000.
Both the Leaf and the Volt come fully loaded with safety equipment -- anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, and plenty of airbags -- plus bells and whistles such as navigation, Bluetooth, satellite radio and USB connections for music.
As more EVs go into production, prices should start to fall. The Leaf and Volt will be available nationwide within a year or so, and by then, the electric Ford Focus and Mitsubishi "i" will be on sale, too. Plus, you'll see more public charging stations at places you'll be parked for a while.