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Behind the wheel of electric cars, no big surprises

CNET's Martin LaMonica has done his homework and roadwork with EVs including the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. The point he wants to drive home is that you'll enjoy the ride of these "real cars."

For all their differences under the hood, the electric cars coming to market do a pretty good job of disguising their electric identities. That will make these vehicles more attractive to potential buyers, but don't expect auto sales to flip electric like a light switch.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to drive a number of electric vehicles at the Business of Plugging In auto industry conference in Detroit. I can report what many car reviewers will tell you: these are real cars. You really can forget that old notion of rickety golf carts.

Step into a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt and you'll feel at home, even with the new "fuel gauges" you'll see. Although I only had short drives with the Leaf, Volt, and other electric cars, I found them comfortable and enjoyable to drive.

As these plug-ins get more attention in the media, it seems there are more attempts to deflate the hype around electric cars. J.D. Powers and Associates, for example, last week issued a press release on electric and hybrid vehicles that had a negative tone.

Demand for electrified vehicles will remain low, J.D. Powers said, unless oil prices spike, there's a breakthrough in battery cost, or a coordinated government policy, as China is doing. The auto review and research company predicts that sales of electric vehicles will be just 7.3 percent of all passenger vehicle sales around the world in 2020, up from 2.2 percent now.

It's worth noting that projections for hybrid and electric car sales vary widely, which is a sign that it's really hard to tell what will happen because so many factors are at play. Auto industry people will tell you electrification of transportation is happening; it's mostly just a question of how quickly and in what form.

Hybrids have been available for years, obviously. Whether you should consider making the jump to a battery electric or a "range-extended electric vehicle" like the Volt really comes down to whether you have the luxury of being an early technology adopter.

If you can afford an electric vehicle in these early years, you'll probably enjoy driving one given the positive reviews that the Leaf and Volt have gotten so far. And I would think people would be happy using less or no oil which, after all, is one of the primary reasons for the shift to electrification.

If electrically driven cars are too far out of your price range, then consider more-affordable hybrids and other fuel-efficient gasoline cars. As someone who bought a Toyota Prius over a year ago, I can say I like getting good mileage, with my miles per gallon ranging from low 40s in winter to high 40s in warmer months. Increasingly, I also appreciate that it's a recognizably "green" car, even though that really wasn't my main motivation when shopping. And let's face it, most of the first electric-car drivers are making a statement by going electric in these early years.

Costs to consider
Whether you want to make a statement or not, you'll have more choices as more hybrids and battery electrics come to market in the next couple of years. There's the gas-electric Chevy Volt, the electric Nissan Leaf, the electric Ford Focus, the Smart Electric Drive, the plug-in Toyota Prius, the Mitsibushi iMiev, and many others.

Now playing: Watch this: 2011 Chevy Volt

In terms of cost, the Volt is priced at $41,000 and the Leaf will cost just under $33,000 with both available to lease for $350 a month. A federal tax credit of $7,500 is available, and state incentives can bring the purchase costs down further.

As a rule, it will be significantly cheaper per mile to own an electrically driven car. But there are some big question marks related to cost and convenience.

Although it's typically not required, automakers are recommending that plug-in drivers have a faster, 220-volt charger. Battery sizes vary, but the faster charger will generally allow you to fully charge a car overnight or, in the case of the Volt, in three or four hours.

The cost of installing a car charger can be significant--potentially a couple thousand dollars--and permitting can take as long as several weeks in some places because this is so new.

Another wild card is resale value. Automakers are offering warranties but we know that batteries degrade over time--on the order of 20 percent to 30 percent over eight to 10 years, according industry executives.

Then there's the issue of infrastructure. Most drivers are expected to mostly charge at home, but many regions are launching public charging stations next year to make longer trips a possibility.

With these unknowns, it's worth keeping an eye on the experience of early EV buyers--whether they be consumers or fleet owners--to get a feel for the pros and cons and how they feel about the purchase price a few years from now.

Behind the wheel
When you get inside a Leaf or Volt, you'll notice some differences done in the name of electrification. Instead of checking the gas tank, you'll find some sort of battery charge meter, which will tell you how full your battery is and roughly how many miles you have left on the charge.

The Volt and the Leaf, which will be delivered to U.S. drivers over the next weeks and months, have feedback systems to make you aware of how you're using energy. Expect this in all electric and hybrid cars as they come out in the next couple of years, which is a very important feature, given the limits and variability of range for electric cars

Now playing: Watch this: 2011 Nissan Leaf

If you floor it, the car will let you know that you're burning through a lot of juice. When you brake or slow down, it will show you how much your battery is recharging. As a person who drives a Prius, I found these to be easy to understand. Another thing I've found--contrary to conventional wisdom--is that I still monitor the Prius feedback system for mileage and how to drive most efficiently, even over a year after buying it.

One feature that benefits the "fun to drive" factor of electrically driven cars is the full torque you get at all speeds. That makes the acceleration smooth and constant and typically pretty zippy.

On my brief spin, handling on the Leaf was responsive and crisp. The Volt felt heavier in front than the Leaf when I took tight turns on a track and I almost felt as if it were gliding on the straight stretches. If anything, my short drives left me wanting more time behind the wheel.

So the biggest adjustment to electric cars won't be when you're behind the wheel. It'll be when you're fueling up.