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.
• 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.
• 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.