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Electric cars: Just getting charged up

A car powered by electricity has been a dream of automakers for more than 100 years. Now, government decree and the popularity of gas-electric hybrids have reignited interest in them. Several models will reach showrooms by summer, and consumers already are showing interest. • I recently drove five models. In the end, here's my advice: With the exception of the Chevrolet Volt, consider electric cars as second or third vehicles, not primary transportation. Their range simply isn't sufficient — yet. • Remember, electric cars are works in progress. These cars will see leaps of progress before your lease expires or payment book ends. Still, they're fascinating and fun, so let's take a closer look at these five.

Nissan Leaf

Range: 100 miles.

Recharge time (220V): Eight hours.

Seats: Four.

On sale: April 2011.

Base price: $32,780.

What's notable: This is the only electric vehicle in the group to offer an SUV body style. The headlamps' shape helps direct air flow.

Behind the wheel: This vehicle's bizarre styling cloaks that it feels like a normal Japanese auto. Steering effort is light, as is the feel of the pedals. The regenerative brakes don't grab like the other vehicles. You can momentarily cancel eco mode for that burst of speed by flooring the accelerator.

Chevrolet Volt

Range: 40/300 miles.

Recharge time (220 volt): Five hours.

Seats: Four.

On sale: 2011 in select markets.

Base price: $41,000.

What's notable: While powered by electricity, the Volt's on-board gas generator recharges the battery pack after 40 miles.

Behind the wheel: The Volt's solid feel is unusual for this class. Handling is enjoyable by any standard. Attractive exterior styling is more striking in person than in photos; the interior is stunning. The overwrought digital instrument cluster is confusing, even if you know what the graphics mean.

Mini E

Range: 100 miles.

Recharge time (220V): Four to six hours.

Seats: Two.

On sale: Nope — this is a test trial.

What's notable: This Mini E loses its back seat to a battery pack. The Mini E is just a test vehicle. Instead, look for BMW to offer a new model: the ActiveE.

Behind the wheel: Of these five cars, the Mini E is the most fun to drive enthusiastically. The result? A five-mile drive used 25 percent of its power and 20 miles of range. The car slows down aggressively when you step off the throttle, throwing you forward.

Mitsubishi I-MIEV

Range: 70 miles.

Recharge time (220V): Six hours.

Seats: Four.

On sale: 2011 in some markets.

Base price: Not announced.

What's notable: This car, in non-electric form, has been on sale in Japan for several years. It won't reach some markets until 2012.

Behind the wheel: With its wheels pushed out to the corners of the car and batteries in the floor, the I-MIEV's handling is better than its egg shape suggests. Acceleration is okay, as long as you skip eco mode. Strangely, it beeps like a garbage truck when backing up. Stranger yet, the beeping is inside the car.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive

Range: 84 miles.

Recharge time (220V): Eight hours.

Seats: Two.

On sale: 2010.

Base price: Not announced.

What's notable: This car, one of 250 in the United States, is part of a pilot program. A revised car goes on sale in 2012.

Behind the wheel: This ForTwo uses a Tesla battery; the production car will use a Daimler battery. Acceleration is linear and slow. Flooring the throttle has little effect: Top speed is 60 mph. The electric motor drones constantly. The Smart's roly-poly handling and tall stance do not inspire confidence.

Electric cars: Just getting charged up 11/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010 6:09pm]

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