Autos | Electric cars

Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt electric cars fun and functional

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Who knew that electric cars could be fun to drive and practical at the same time? Those were my impressions recently after test-driving the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in Chevrolet Volt, two new cars that will reach showroom floors later this year.

The Leaf

• Zippy and feels spacious and fun.

• All-electric, which means you never have to worry about burning gasoline or having to deal with the maintenance issues of a combustion engine, such as changing the oil or replacing the spark plugs or timing belts.

• A range of only 100 miles — less if you drive fast or run the heater or air conditioner.

• Recharging it is not easy: eight hours to 20 hours for the batteries to recharge. This can be much quicker — as little as 30 minutes or so to get an 80 percent charge — at one of the relatively few fast-charging stations.

• Leaf is small. The Leaf is about the same as a Honda Fit. It's a four-door with a small, vertical storage area behind the back seat. That kind of vehicle is great if you're single and without kids, but it's too small to meet the needs of many drivers.

The Volt

• It feels like a standard family car updated for the 21st century with high-tech features you can control through a smart phone.

• Considered an extended-range electric vehicle. It has a gasoline engine that kicks in after you drain its batteries.

• Greater range than the Leaf and requires much less time to recharge — as little as three hours with a high-power outlet.

• Volt's electric battery will power the car for only the first 40 miles, requiring many drivers to buy and burn gasoline.

• On longer trips, the benefit of the electric engine will be largely negated because the car will be using the gas engine most of the time.

• Neither Chevrolet nor the Environmental Protection Agency has said yet what kind of mileage owners should expect from Volt's gasoline engine.

• Expect many of the same maintenance schedules and costs that come with a regular gas-powered car.

• Whereas few people could depend on the Leaf as their only car because of its limited range, the Volt could easily be a primary vehicle, thanks to its backup engine.

• The car is also fully integrated with GM's OnStar system. The company is developing a smart-phone application tied into OnStar that will allow users to remotely start and lock the Volt, schedule recharging times and check things like oil and tire pressure.

Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt electric cars fun and functional 09/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 5:30am]

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