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Electric Vehicle Buying Guide.

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Electric Vehicle Buying Guide.

As described in "Hybrid Cars: All About Hybrids," hybrid cars use an electric motor (sometimes two), working in conjunction with a gasoline engine. Sometimes the hybrid car runs on electricity alone. Most of the time, it's powered by the gasoline engine, or a combination of the two.

As the second decade of the 21st century gets rolling, the alternative-fuel models that get the most attention are pure electrics like Nissan's Leaf-cars that run solely on electricity. Also getting the full publicity treatment are extended-range electric cars, mainly Chevrolet's Volt, which use a gasoline engine to charge the battery while underway, but not to actually propel the car. Plug-in hybrid models-which operate like regular hybrids but can connect to an AC electrical outlet for charging-also are beginning to vie for attention, and will likely become serious contenders before long.

All-electric operation is hardly a new idea. In fact, electric cars date back to the dawn of the automobile age, when such battery-powered makes as Detroit and Baker appeared ready to overtake the internal-combustion gasoline engine as the primary power source for American vehicles. By the time Henry Ford launched his Model T in 1908, electrics were on the way out, though a few hung on into the 1930s.

Electric cars had a mild resurgence in the 1970s, when a scattering of small manufacturers turned out small, limited-production models that ran on batteries. Some, like the angular wedge-shaped CitiCar and its Comuta-Car successor, were "dedicated" electrics-specially built for that purpose-and sold in respectable numbers. Other companies converted existing conventional cars to battery power. Either way, every company faded away after a few years.

Early in the 1990s, General Motors began to lease its EV1 electric car to several thousand eager customers. Most EV1 lessees loved their electrics. Many were aghast when GM elected to take them all back, rather than let their owners buy or re-lease them for longer periods.

Several major makes offered electric offshoots of conventional models in the 1990s, including Toyota's RAV4 EV in the 1990s and Ford's Ranger EV pickup. Honda launched a purpose-built EV Plus model in 1997, but only about 300 were sold. At that time, "the world was not ready for the electric world," said Honda executive vice-president John Mendel at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Limited range has always been an electric-car obstacle. The mid-1970s CitiCar promised a 50-mile range, and GM's EV1 of the 1990s claimed 100 miles. Lead-acid batteries, used in 20th-century electrics, were heavy, thus impeding performance. Nickel metal hydride batteries proved more efficient, and today's lithium-ion battery packs promise even greater efficiency. Yet, range is still a major concern. A century ago, however, the Detroit Electric claimed an 80-mile range, and in a special test, one car is said to have gone 211 miles before running out of electricity.

Pure Electric Cars and Trucks.

Driving just about any electric car is a snap. Just move the selector into Drive, and push on the accelerator pedal. There are no gears to change, because electrics normally use single-speed transmissions. Naturally, they're almost totally quiet-too quiet to suit the National Federation for the Blind. That organization spearheaded passage of a bill through Congress late in 2010, mandating installation of "noisemaker" devices to warn blind (and other) pedestrians that an automobile is nearby.

Many drivers are wary of electrics, worrying most about range limitations. Most current and coming-soon electrics are limited to less than 100 miles on a charge. Some can go farther under ideal conditions, but not by much. Even if the owner only drives, say, 50 miles per day while commuting, what happens if, for some reason, a longer trip suddenly becomes necessary? Not many charging stations exist as yet, though the number is growing quickly, especially in California. Charge times (especially at ordinary 110-volt outlets) can run 10 hours or more. Quicker-charging installations run at 220 volts, and experiments are underway with even higher voltages.

Several current electrics, including the Mini E and smart EV, are battery-powered offshoots of existing models. Others were developed strictly for battery operation. In a few cases (notably Mini and smart, again), passenger space is reduced to just two, to accommodate the battery pack. Battery life is another concern, but electric cars include an 8-year/100,000-mile battery warranty.

Electric cars earn a $7,500 tax credit from the federal government (until 200,000 examples of that model are sold). Certain states may offer additional credits. As of late 2010, five vehicles (Leaf, Volt, CODA, Tesla, Wheego) were listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as qualifying for the $7,500 credit.

Electric Vehicles Available Now.

Nissan Leaf: First sold at the end of 2010, the Leaf (or LEAF) is the undisputed leader in pure electrics issued by a mass manufacturer-partly because it's the only one with family-size passenger space, at least for a while. On sale initially in seven states, the Leaf uses a 90-kilowatt electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack. The EPA gives the Leaf fuel-economy estimate equivalent to 99 mpg combined (106 city/92 highway), and a 73-mile expected range. Two trim levels are offered, starting at $32,780. Batteries fit under front and rear seats, and charging takes 7 hours at 240 volts, according to the EPA. Nissan foresees 13,000 charging stations by 2010 (400 of them offering quick-charging).

Smooth in operation and easy to drive, the Leaf is spirited and enjoyable on the road, handling like a typical compact car. Like other electrics, it starts off swiftly then eases back as it approaches highway speed. Ample performance information is displayed, including locations of public charging stations. Drive and Eco modes are available.

smart EV: Developed by Mercedes-Benz, the battery-powered smart car looks like the gasoline edition but holds only two passengers. Rather than the sequential manual transmission that gives gas smart cars a jerky nature, the EV edition-which lacks a conventional transmission-delivers smooth and easy takeoffs. With its now-familiar look the smart fortwo seems like a logical choice for electric power. Able to maneuver tidily, the EV weighs 308 pounds more than a gasoline-engine smart car. Range is a claimed 83 miles. A full charge takes 8 hours, but charging from 20 to 80 percent of battery capacity takes 3.5 hours. Like regular fortwo models, the EV takes bigger bumps rather harshly. Two Charge gauges protrude above the dashboard.

Mini E: Available for leasing since 2009, starting in California and the New York area, BMW's Mini E is a battery-powered version of its popular Mini sport subcompact, but with seating for two rather than four. The monthly lease payment began at an eye-popping $850, but later dropped to $600.

On the road, the Mini E feels far different from the others, due largely to more intense regenerative braking that slows the car dramatically when you let up on the accelerator. Otherwise, the electric Mini delivers all the exuberant driving joy of a regular Cooper hatchback-but without the back seat.

Tesla Roadster 2.5: High performance hasn't been a prominent factor in most electric cars, but Tesla is a serious exception. This high-end sports car comes only with battery power, promising exuberant performance comparable to the top two-seaters on the market-with even greater acceleration intensity, due to the high-torque nature of electric motors. In addition to promising 0-60 mph acceleration in 3.7 seconds, the Roadster has a claimed 245-mile range-far beyond any other electric car on sale or coming soon. Expect to pay around $101,500 after the tax credit, or lease a Tesla for a mighty $1,658 per month. Tesla also plans to introduce a battery-powered sedan, possibly by March 2011.

CODA Sedan: Not many people had heard of CODA Automotive until the California-based company exhibited its electric-car lineup at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2010. Priced at $37,400 (after tax credit), the four-door, five-passenger sedan can reach 80 mph, according to the company, promising a 90-120 mile range. The sedan has a 20 cubic foot trunk, and a lithium ion phosphate (LiFePO4) battery pack is installed.

Wheego LiFe EV: Displayed at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show, the Wheego electric two-seater is said to be ready for sale at more than 20 dealers, with a $32,995 price tag-more than Nissan's five-passenger Leaf. Built in the U.S., the subcompact Wheego resembles a smart car but is more angular. With its 30-kilowatt electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack, Wheego claims a 100-mile range and 70-mph top speed. Charging takes 20 hours at 110 volts, but 240-volt charging is an option.

Coming soon-Or Later.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV: Initially expected during 2010, Mitsubishi's electric subcompact now is planned for arrival in the U.S. in fall 2011, in a wider-bodied form to suit American tastes. Pronounced EYE-Meev, the i-MiEV has been sold in Japan since 2009. Mitsubishi has been working on electric cars since 1975, and issued a Colt EV in Japan in 2004. More than 4,000 i-MiEVs already are on the road worldwide, many in taxi use.

"Not intended to replace the family SUV" or for long trips was Mitsubishi's recommendation at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show; the i-MiEV is "best suited for local commuting." Mitsubishi has entered into an agreement with Best Buy and Eaton Corp. to distribute home chargers. Not quite up to the Leaf or Volt in overall smoothness, the current i-MiEV comes close, as affirmed in a brief test drive of a Japanese-market version.

Ford Focus Electric: Expected to go on sale late in 2011, the battery-powered edition of Ford's newly redesigned subcompact will employ a lithium-ion battery pack that uses heated/cooled liquid to boost its life and range. Ford claims a 100-mile range. A European model presented as a prototype for test drives performed capably, if a bit crudely; but rough edges are sure to be dealt with by production time.

Ford Transit Connect EV: Only Ford, thus far, has developed a battery-powered commercial vehicle for regular sale. Introduced for 2010, this relatively compact van can be equipped to carry either passengers or cargo in its regular gasoline-engine form. Production was scheduled to begin by the start of 2011. Ford claims an 80-mile range for its Force Drive electric powertrain, with charging at 120 or 240 volts. The Transit Connect EV is intended for fleet vehicles that run on predictable routes.

Amp Electric Vehicle: Like a sizable handful of smaller companies in the past, Amp is converting conventional vehicles to battery power. For its new electric GM Equinox, Amp claims a range of up to 150 miles, as well as 0-60 mph acceleration in under seven seconds. Charging can take place at either 110 or 220 volts. The electric Equinox uses two rear-mounted electric motors, with a LiFePO battery pack. Price is expected to be around $47,000.

Honda Fit Electric: Introduced at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show, the battery-powered variant of Honda's subcompact model is a likely candidate for production in the near future. In its show-car form, the Fit Electric hatchback claims a 100-mile (city cycle) range, using a three-mode drive system.

Volvo C30 Electric: No production schedule has been announced, and it might never reach the U.S. at all, but Volvo has made examples of its battery-powered C30 hatchback available for brief test drives. That early C30 Electric prototype yielded a satisfying and enjoyable experience, retaining the joyful nature and easy agility of the gasoline-engine model.

Toyota RAV4 Electric: No newcomer to pure-electric power, Toyota offered a battery-powered offshoot of its RAV4 compact crossover SUV in the late 1990s. Only 1,454 were sold over a four-year period (half of them still running). Now, at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show, Toyota debuted an electric version of its latest-generation RAV4. Toyota is working with Tesla to develop the RAV4's battery powertrain.

Also at the Los Angeles show, Saab exhibited a 9-3 ePower model that runs on batteries. Fiat, which is now tied to Chrysler, has brought battery-powered versions of its 500 minicar to auto shows.

10 Points to Consider Before You Go Electric.

  1. Be sure you'll be satisfied with the car's range, and aware that a pure electric isn't the prudent choice for a long trip–or a medium-length journey.
  2. Pay attention to how the car behaves. Most electrics feel almost like a gasoline-engine car, except for lack of gears, near-silence, and brisk initial takeoff. Some–notably the Mini E–have an entirely different character, which some may consider sporty but others find annoying.
  3. Don't expect to recoup all, or even a major portion, of the additional cost of an electric car compared to a regular model that consumes gasoline–even if you're getting tax credits.
  4. Unless your taxable income exceeds the tax credit figure, you'll get only a portion of that credit. Tax credits are applied against the amount of tax that you own. Latest information on available tax credits may be found at www.irs.gov.
  5. Evaluate the cost and difficulty of setting up a charging station at home and/or your workplace, and the likelihood of sufficient public charging stations becoming available in your area.
  6. Ponder the estimated charge times at 110 and 220 volts (if there's a choice), under different conditions.
  7. "Green" credentials for an electric car may be compromised if you need an additional car or truck for longer trips. Remember, too, that you're paying for the cost of charging the car, which adds to overall operating cost.
  8. If you live in a region with frigid winter weather, think twice. Batteries are less efficient at cold temperatures.
  9. Consider the unresolved issues about battery safety, but don't assume the critics are right, either.
  10. Consider alternative methods to achieve high mileage, including diesel power or a fuel-efficient smaller car (see below).

Extended-Range Plug-in Electrics.

One way to give an electric car a longer range is to install a gasoline engine, but use it only for charging the battery while in motion-when you're away from a plug-in outlet. Unlike a hybrid, an extended-range electric vehicle normally does not use the gasoline engine to propel the vehicle. Currently, only one extended-range model is on the market, and just about everyone has heard about it.

Chevrolet Volt: As 2011 gets underway, Chevrolet's Volt is the best-known extended-range electric car by far, and the only one on actual sale in the U.S. General Motors has grabbed scads of publicity for the Volt, ever since it first appeared at Detroit's auto show in January 2006. Similar in operation to the pure-electric cars, the roomy four-passenger Volt will run for about 40 miles (actually 25 to 50, depending on conditions) using electric power alone. When the battery becomes discharged, a small (1.4-liter) gasoline engine fires up to serve as a generator, keeping the battery in a state of charge. Total range, then, is limited only by the gasoline that's in the tank. After first denying that the gasoline engine ever propels the car, GM now admits that it does provide auxiliary energy at times, boosting efficiency by 10 to 15 percent.

Purchasing a Volt takes $41,000, or it can be leased for $250 per month (for 36 months/12,000 miles). Charging takes 10 hours at 110 volts, or 4 hours at 240 volts.

Refined and comfortable, the Volt comes across as a totally serious automobile, which almost warrants GM's highly hyped claims. At startup, occupants may hear what sounds like a gasoline engine, but that shouldn't happen unless the battery is depleted. Instruments give the driver plenty of helpful information on what's happening as the Volt travels.

A word of caution: If you normally drive more than about 40 miles at a time, the gasoline engine will run for part of every trip. Obviously, you won't get the near-infinite mileage figure that advertisements promise. Only if you never go more than 40 miles without a recharge will the Volt consume no fuel. GM claims a 350-mile total range, until the 9.3-gallon fuel tank is empty. That calculates to about 37 mpg-not as thrifty as several hybrids. The more battery-only trips you take, the higher that mpg figure will go.

Plug-in Hybrids.

As the name suggests, these models are like regular hybrids, operating on a combination of battery and gasoline-provided power. When at home or a charging station, however, the car can simply be plugged in for recharging. Plug-in hybrids have been talked about for several years, and working examples have appeared at conventions and auto shows. No major manufacturers have issued one as yet.

Models under development and thought to be near production including a plug-in Toyota Prius. Volvo has said it will have a thousand plug-in hybrids available for testing. Ford plans to have a plug-in hybrid model on sale in 2012.

The Future of Hybrids and Electrics.

Just about every manufacturer seems to have an electric of some sort in the works, or is rumored to be headed in that direction. Concepts are certain to keep appearing, along with models headed for possible-or certain-production. New hybrids and electrics, announced or rumored, include the Audi e-tron, Cadillac Converj, BMW Megacity vehicle, Porsche 918 speedster, and Tesla Model S sedan.

At the same time, plenty of scoffers keep pointing out the deficiencies of electric cars, led by their limited range and minimal charging opportunities. They also express concerns about the safety of lithium-ion batteries, insisting that the technology is not proven as yet. Critics also believe that except for a handful of environmentally concerned folk, Americans aren't ready for electrics.

Alternate Possibilities for Fuel-Efficiency.

High-efficiency gasoline cars: Some conventional car models, especially small ones, already approach the fuel-efficiency of a hybrid. Efficient gasoline engines are likely to be at least part of the fuel-efficiency solution in the near future, simply because they're most familiar. Though considerable improvement has been made in average fuel economy over the past three-plus decades, since the first CAFE standard came into play, engineers insist that technology can improve a lot more. Adopting smaller engines is one big step. Making the best use of available technologies, such as variable valve and cam timing, is another. Reducing vehicle weight makes a considerable difference, but some safety advocates argue that lighter-weight cars are more vulnerable in accidents.

Transmissions matter, too. Traditionally, manual-shift cars were more frugal than those with an automatic transmission, due to losses within the automatic unit. That's not necessarily so anymore. Some automatic-transmission models garner better EPA fuel-economy estimates than their stick-shift brethren.

Diesels: Marketed sporadically for decades, diesel engines promise impressive fuel economy. After staying above the price of gasoline for several years, diesel fuel began to get cheaper. In most areas, by late spring of 2009, diesel cost 10 or 20 cents less per gallon than gasoline. Today, diesel is typically a little higher than gasoline, but not by much.

Price isn't what keeps diesel from catching on, though. Diesel engines are still mistrusted by much of the public-including people who recall the nastier diesel models of the past. Today's diesels, running on the now-mandated "clean" diesel fuel, are far removed from the noisy, clattering, smoky versions of yesteryear. Most of them function pleasantly and frugally. Auto journalists and industry people tend to love them because they deliver abundant low-end torque for energetic acceleration, rather than strictly for their higher miles-per-gallon figures.

Nearly every automaker has been working on diesels for the U.S. That's because nearly all of them produce diesel-engine vehicles for sale elsewhere in the world. In Europe, where fuel prices are far higher, diesel power has been favored for decades, largely because of its thriftier nature. Today, only a handful of German manufacturers-Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW-market diesel cars in the U.S.

Compressed Natural Gas: Only one automaker, Honda, offers a CNG car-the Honda Civic GX. Though CNG is considered a clean fuel, and this Civic an efficient model, they're limited to specific parts of the country.

Fuel Cells: Just about everyone has heard the call for a hydrogen-based economy, using fuel-cell vehicles. A few years back, it sounded like hydrogen-based fuel cells were practically on their way into the marketplace. Yet, except for Honda, which offers an FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle to selected customers in California, nearly all the fuel-cell vehicles running around are experimental or demonstration models. Few tangible steps have been taken toward a hydrogen infrastructure, comparable to the one that now provides gasoline at virtually every other street corner.

So, are fuel-cell cars fantasy or still potential reality? Proponents remain optimistic, but at this point, no one can say for sure.

Many motorists and industry leaders alike appear to be waiting for a "silver bullet," in the form of a new fuel or technology that will make all concerns moot. Trouble is, we can't entirely dismiss the possibility of a virtually "magic" solution. But if we sit and wait for that to appear, we'll be in big trouble when fuel prices again begin to soar upward, or supplies begin to dwindle.

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