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EVs meet the 'real car' test with ease

Taking electric cars, including the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, out for a ride reminds CNET's Martin LaMonica that EVs are very solid and have the goods in the "fun to drive" department.

DEARBORN, MI--It doesn't take long to realize that the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt drive at least as well as their gasoline counterparts.

I had the chance yesterday to take a few electric cars out for a ride as part of the Business of Plugging In conference here. Electric cars certainly aren't for everyone, but one walks away from driving a few EVs feeling that they're greener, high-tech, and very comfortable to drive.

In years past, there were wacky three-wheeled vehicles and custom electric scooters available for rides at this conference, but this year it was all production vehicles. That makes it a pretty short list: the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Roadster, Ford Transit Connect van, and an electric Mercedes ML converted into an all-electric SUV from Amp Electric Vehicles due out next year.

Behind the wheel of an electrically driven car, you quickly notice how quiet it is and how smooth and steady the acceleration is compared with a gasoline engine. We're all accustomed to the noise and vibration of internal combustion engines. But once that's gone, you really don't miss it.

I was able to take the Volt out onto the highways and byways for a longer drive, and the acceleration was ample when passing other cars. And since the Volt runs from an electric motor (the gas engine acts as a generator to sustain the battery), you get the sedan's full acceleration at all speeds. When you really gun it, it lets you know when you're slipping into the less energy-efficient "sport" mode.

Sprightly from full stop
The Leaf and even the Mercedes ML SUV were also sprightly from a full stop. The Tesla Roadster Sport, meanwhile, literally knocks you back in your seat with its stomach-dropping acceleration, but that's an entirely different category of car.

An all-electric Mercedes ML SUV is set for release next year Martin LaMonica/CNET

Even though the Leaf, Volt, and Mercedes are weighed down with big battery packs, the handling doesn't feel bulky or awkward. I did notice the Volt feels a bit heavier when cornering compared with the Leaf, which felt more like a typical compact. Even Ford's electric utility van didn't strain or lurch from the battery weight while cutting around sharp corners.

The other thing you quickly notice about the Volt and the Leaf is how high-tech the in-car controls are. When you turn on the Volt, it makes a cool swooshing sound and the display has slick graphics to show battery discharge and recharge from braking. Both the Leaf and Volt give drivers tips on how to conserve energy.

The Leaf also has the handy feature of locating public charging stations nearby. (I was surprised to find there were several within 10 or 15 miles.) Both these cars can be remotely controlled with a smart phone application and have features like letting people schedule charging to get off-peak rates or pre-warming the battery to improve performance on very cold days.

All these whiz-bang features are fun and useful, but the in-car displays, in particular, make you far more aware of energy consumption than a typical gasoline-only car. Sure, people check the gas gauge. But because displays give precise and real-time feedback on battery charge, I suspect daily EV drivers are very aware of what's left in the electric "tank."

My highway drive in the Volt was just a quick jaunt, but it made a noticeable dent in the remaining battery charge. (The Volt gets 35 to 50 miles on battery alone and then a gas engine kicks in to maintain the battery.)

Driving range can vary substantially based on temperature, hills, and driving style, so these range gauges need to be clever. When I stepped into the Leaf, the estimated range was 95 miles. But after I had driven aggressively for several minutes, the remaining range went down a few miles even though the state of charge was essentially the same.

Are EVs right for you?
These first production electric cars get lots of buzz, but automakers are just serving a tiny niche of technology and EV enthusiasts at this point. GM has sold about 4,000 Volts so far and Nissan is at about 5,000, according to company representatives. But more plug-ins are on the way, notably the Plug-in Prius hybrid and Ford Focus Electric, which are both due in the coming months.

This first wave of plug-in vehicles is really aimed at people who are willing and able to pay for the latest green car technology. Nobody really knows how sales of plug-in vehicles will fare in the years ahead, but there are a few obvious considerations.

For starters, you need to know your driving patterns. This summer, I tested out a tool from startup EV Profiler that accurately logs the miles you drive as well as hills. It translates your daily driving data and gives you an estimate of how much charge you would have left on the Volt or another EV. Even though I instinctively knew my family's daily drive routes, actually measuring it helped me better visualize how I would use an EV or range-extended EV like the Volt.

Of course, cost is a big consideration. The 2012 Leaf starts at $35,200 and the Volt is priced under $40,000, with both benefiting from a $7,500 tax credit. The plug-in Prius will have a base cost of $32,000 and be under $30,000 after a federal tax rebate.

Fueling up on electricity is a significantly cheaper than driving on gas, so the operating costs for plug-in cars will be lower. The EPA sticker on the 2012 Chevy Volt will note $7,600 in fuel savings over five years, according to a GM executive.

Of course, the transition to electrification stems from a societal push to reduce oil consumption and develop cleaner transportation. Using a miles per gallon equivalent, the Leaf is rated at 99mpge and the Plug in Prius is at 87mpge, while the Volt varies significantly depending on usage with a combined rating of 60mpg.

And then there are less tangible aspects to EVs, such as having access to the latest in automotive technology and not needing to go to gas stations. When you read online discussions about the Leaf and Volt, these are the sorts of items that people seem to appreciate the most.