Nissan Leaf hits the road

DETROIT--The auto industry really is serious about electrification, as evidenced by the "ride and drive" event this week at the Business of Plugging In conference here. People took turns getting a ride in electric cars designed for everyday use, including the Nissan Leaf, pictured here. The Leaf had a long line of drivers eager to get in, as did the Volt and, of course, the Tesla Roadster. With all these well-known EVs around, it was sort of like being at the Oscars and seeing stars walking about.

Driving the Leaf was very enjoyable and comfortable. It very much felt like a normal car. More details on the Nissan Leaf, which will be available in December, are available here.

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Volt plugged in

After years of preparation and a significant amount of hype, the Chevy Volt is being manufactured and will be shipped to customers in November, its target date. Even though the Volt is often touted as the car that will reinvent General Motors, the volume of sales--and financial impact--will be relatively small for at least the first few years.

In my short drive, I can say that it was very fun to drive, had good acceleration, although it felt a bit heavier when turning than other EVs I drove that day. Mileage for the Volt will vary greatly depending on whether the driving taps the gasoline engine, with mileage ranging from the mid- to high 30s to over 100 miles per gallon, a GM Volt executive said.

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Ford Focus battery electric

Rather than come out with a separate electric model, Ford is making some of its current cars electric or plug-in hybrids. Here is a battery electric Focus that can go about 100 miles on a charge. When the car comes out next year, it will have the most recent Focus body. After that, Ford is developing a plug-in hybrid for 2012 on a new hybrid platform.

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Tesla Roadster

A local designer who works on in-car touch-screen interfaces brought his Tesla Roadster to the Ride and Drive event, and many people were very grateful. The $109,000 Roadster looks great and the ride was an absolute treat. The famed acceleration left me shouting out in amazement.

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Smart electric drive

Smart, a division of Daimler, will be bring 250 Smart Electric Drive minicars to the U.S. in the coming weeks. The car is the same as the gasoline version except it has an electric powertrain. It tops out at around 62 miles per hour and has a range of about 80 miles. Smart is initially expected to sell or lease the car to fleet owners and consumers in cities.

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Transit connected

This is an electric version of Ford's Transit Connect utility van, which will be available later this year. Ford delivers the body and Azure Dynamics makes the powertrain for the van. Ford's strategy in regards to electrification is to have hybrid or plug-in versions of its existing vehicles, allowing the company to share common components and manufacture them on a single line.

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Amp Equinox

There are several production plug-in vehicles coming out in the next two years, but a handful of companies are focusing on the conversion business. AMP Electric Vehicles converted this Chevy Equinox with electric motors. It has a range of 120 miles.

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Under Leaf hood

Under the hood of the Nissan Leaf shows how different all-electric vehicles are from their internal-combustion-engine cousins. On top is the power electronics, which control the electric current, and below that is the electric motor, which moves the car. The batteries are placed under the seats in the middle of the car.

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Leaf energy display

The feedback system for electric vehicles is an important aspect to making these cars familiar to consumers who need to adjust to a different fuel source. Here is one of the displays on the Nissan Leaf (the car wasn't moving), which shows how much power in kilowatts is being drawn or fed into the battery. It also indicates how much power the heating, cooling, and other systems are drawing. In addition to in-car displays, the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and other electric vehicles will provide information to consumers through smartphones, allowing them to check and schedule charge status and preheat or cool a car while it's still plugged in. Because everything in the car is electric, range can be impacted significantly by temperature and driving habits.

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Volt charger

Here is the charging station that comes with the Chevy Volt. General Motors signed on SPX as the suggested installer for the Chevy Volt. One of the considerations for electric car owners is the cost of installing a 240-volt charge station in their homes, which can be several hundred dollars and could take some time to get the necessary permits. With the 240-volt (level 2) charger, it takes between three and four hours to charge the Volt.

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Solar powered Volt

In an effort to build out the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, GM said that it plans to install charging pedestals at its corporate offices in Michigan. It's also partnering with solar companies to build charging stations equipped with solar panels. Here is a prototype.

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DC fast charger

Earlier this week, charge station maker Ecotality introduced its Blink fast-charge direct current station. It uses a higher voltage than level 1 and 2 charge points and direct current, which enables it to charge significantly faster. Ecotality says that it can charge a Nissan Leaf battery in about a half hour, although the rate will depend on conditions such as temperature. This fast-charge station will be available next year and will be used in public places, rather than homes. Drivers can expect to pay significantly more at public stations than at home.

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