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Electric Cars

Auto Evolution

The Dawn of a New Era

The first truly mainstream electric-powered cars now are hitting the streets. They deliver the performance and fuel savings, but their price and limited range, and a lack of refueling stations, mean that they aren’t for everyone.

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Smart USA

A quiet revolution begins this winter. After decades of false starts, thousands of electric cars will hum down U.S. roads to challenge the supremacy of the gasoline-powered automobile.

These electric cars won’t be mere science projects. Models such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF—the first electric cars to arrive—are designed to be practical and relatively affordable. They’ll thumb their aerodynamic noses at every gas pump in town, while they deliver the equivalent of 100 mpg or more. Plug-in hybrids, such as the Volt, will have near-zero emissions. Pure electric vehicles (EVs), such as the LEAF, will emit zero tailpipe pollutants. (The LEAF doesn’t even have a tailpipe.)

Of course, electric cars still produce carbon dioxide and other pollutants—in a roundabout way—because most U.S. electricity is derived from coal or other fossil fuels. But multiple independent studies confirm that electric cars are far more environmentally friendly than are traditional vehicles. Electricity also is much less expensive than is gasoline or diesel, and if you can combine an electric car with hydroelectric, solar or wind power, you can achieve environmental nirvana.

But electric cars aren’t for everyone—yet.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT? The lowest priced EVs and plug-in models will cost vastly more than will a comparably sized gas-only model, even after a lavish $7,500 federal tax credit. If you include that credit, the compact LEAF—a hatchback that has a roughly 100-mile driving range—will start at $25,280. (The MSRP is $32,780.) The post-tax-credit price still is $10,000 more than that of a well-equipped Nissan Versa hatchback.

The Volt is the world’s first mass-market plug-in hybrid. It manages 30 to 50 miles on electricity before it switches seamlessly to gasoline power. The Volt’s gas engine generates electricity to power the car but adds power to the wheels mainly at speeds above 70 mph. The Volt will cost even more than the LEAF will—$41,000, or $33,500 after the tax credit. (Depending on where you live, state credits might trim up to $5,000 more off the price of any qualifying electric car.)

To ease the financial blow, General Motors and Nissan will offer leases of $350 per month for 36 months on their electric cars. That’s a sweetheart deal: The Volt, for example, would cost at least $800 a month to buy with no trade-in and a $2,500 down payment.

The Volt and the LEAF arrived in a handful of states last December; their makers say neither car will be available in all 50 states until the end of 2011.

LEAF, Volt to Generate Debate

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The huge “technology premium” that it will take to own a car that is stuffed with pricey lithium-ion batteries (conventional hybrids use less expensive nickel-metal-hydride batteries) will strike many people as an unnecessary splurge. Car companies and battery-makers around the world are striving to make batteries—by far the most expensive component of electric cars—more affordable.

Jesse Toprak, who is an industry analyst with TrueCar.com, says prices could drop quickly as supply increases but that a sub-$20,000 electric car won’t happen anytime soon.

READY, SET, CHARGE. Cold dollars-and-cents calculations aren’t necessarily the prime selling point for electric cars. Experts say some buyers will choose electric cars for more-altruistic reasons—to ease pollution and global warming, and to help to cut America’s addiction to Middle East oil. Other early adopters, analysts suggest, are like tech gadget fans, who want to be the first on the block to own the latest, coolest thing. And electric cars are the iPads of the automobile world.

Count Don and JoAnn Young among the converts. The Youngs are among the barely 1,500 Americans who drive an electric car—in their case the MINI E, which is an EV version of the BMW-designed MINI Cooper. BMW chose 450 Americans in 2009 to provide feedback on a test fleet of leased MINI Es. Models such as the MINI E and others that we drove provide a telling glimpse of what consumers can expect from these newfangled cars.

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