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Drive Time


5 New Electric Vehicles Worth a Look

Jessica L. Anderson

Plug-ins won't be more widely accepted until prices come closer to comparable gas-engine cars.



Two years ago, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt debuted to much hype—and lots of skepticism. Would Americans embrace these plug-ins as a green godsend or regard them as expensive toys? The verdict: neither. Buyers are warming up to them, and sales are steady if not overwhelming.

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But consumer acceptance isn't the only factor that is revving up EV production. California regulations requiring large carmakers to have zero-emission vehicles in their fleets kick in this year. So Toyota, Ford, Honda and GM are introducing new all-electric options for those looking to plug in to fuel up.

Still pricey. Prices are significantly higher than for gas-engine vehicles, even when you add in standard fare on plug-ins, such as navigation systems. A $7,500 federal tax credit is available for electric vehicles, but it doesn't chip away enough at price tags ($36,050 for the 2012 Leaf; $39,995 for the 2012 Volt) to make them wallet-friendly. Plug-ins won't be more widely accepted until prices come closer to comparable gas-engine cars, says John Voelcker, editor of GreenCarReports.com. "The cost has to be close enough that buyers can sense how the vast savings in 'fuel' will offset the price difference."

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Electricity is cheaper than gasoline, and maintenance is less expensive than for combustible-engine vehicles; but total five-year ownership costs are still higher than for a compact gas-sipper because of the price disparity. The Leaf also costs more over five years than the Toyota Prius hybrid.

Range continues to be a consideration, too. Though the majority of charges will be done at home, trips longer than 80 miles could leave you with a dead battery. Currently, there are about 10,000 public charging stations, although a recent report by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan predicts 500,000 by 2017.

New choices. The 2012 Ford Focus Electric is on sale now in California, New Jersey and New York. The hatchback's estimated range of 76 miles is comparable to the Leaf's, but thanks to a larger-capacity onboard charger, it "fills up" in three to four hours instead of the Leaf's eight. Drive-wise, there's little to distinguish it from its gas-engine sibling. When you step off the accelerator, it doesn't slow precipitously as it regenerates energy; but until you really punch the pedal, you don't feel the instant power typical of other EVs, either.

The best feature: an in-dash LED screen that offers coaching on how to conserve power. The worst: An oddly configured, cramped cargo space, where Ford dumps the battery pack. The price tag is $39,995 (a comparably equipped gas-engine Focus Titanium hatch costs $27,010).

The 2013 Honda Fit EV, which hit dealers' lots this summer in California and Oregon and will expand to the East Coast early next year, fares better. The compact hatch offers three drive modes, ranging from most efficient to sporty; all three are enjoyable, but Sport mode is flat-out fun. Like the Focus, the Fit charges in about three hours but, at 82 miles, ekes out a few more miles of range. More perks: The navigation system shows you your range on the map, which the Focus doesn't, and it has more rear legroom and cargo space. Honda will only be leasing the Fit EV, so it’s hard to compare the price with other EVs. However, the priciest 2012 gas-engine Fit ($20,480) leases for about $375 a month for 36 months; the Fit EV will go for $389.

The 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV went on sale in late summer in California, with a hefty price tag of just over $50,000 (a top-of-the-line gas-engine model costs $29,460). The Chevrolet Spark EV ships next year, but GM has been tight-lipped on pricing. The most exciting entry is the Tesla Model S luxury sedan. The base model, which debuts next spring, has a 160-mile range and starts at $57,400. The Signature models (300-mile range, starting at $95,400) are on sale now.

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This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.



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