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Leading the charge

Under the Leaf hood

Charge ports

Leaf batteries

Volts in a row

Volt battery check

Electric Benz

Ford Focus Electric

The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are the vanguard of a wave of plug-in electric vehicles coming to market over the next several years. Early next year will see the arrival of the Plug-in Prius and the Ford Fusion Electric and then there is the recently announce all-electric 2013 Chevy Spark. See related article: EVs meet the 'real car' test with ease.

How are the sales of the Volt and Leaf? So far, the two companies have sold less than 10,000 units, but executives from GM and Nissan expect to sell out the first two years of production. The question the industry is facing is whether and when a broader set of drivers will start to buy plug-in vehicles beyond early adopters.

Caption by / Photo by Martin LaMonica/CNET

Under the hood, the Nissan Leaf doesn't look all that different from a typical gasoline engine at quick glance, even though it's completely different. The large "block" on top is the inverter and below that is the electric motor that moves the car. Being quiet creates engineering challenges. Engineers designed raised headlights to direct the wind flow slightly differently. If they hadn't, drivers would have heard the wind blowing past rear-view mirrors.

Caption by / Photo by Martin LaMonica/CNET

The Leaf is different from the Volt in that it's equipped with a 240-volt on-board charger and fast direct charge port (on left). Although it's still a few years away, Nissan is working on a fast-charge system which will fully charge the Leaf battery in 10 minutes.

Caption by / Photo by Martin LaMonica/CNET

So where are the Leaf batteries? Here you can actually see how the battery pack is underneath the front seat and the middle of the car. In the back seat, you do notice that the floor seems slightly higher than a typical car.

Caption by / Photo by Martin LaMonica/CNET

GM projects that it will sell out all the Volts it produces in the first year, which is about 10,000. Next year, it expects that its total volume of 60,000 units will be sold as well. Company executives are uncomfortable making volume predictions beyond that because it depends on so many other factors, such as oil prices and government policies.

Caption by / Photo by Martin LaMonica/CNET

One of the screens from the Chevy Volt's in-car feedback system. The car has a slick set of displays which lets people closely monitor energy consumption based on driving patterns and conditions.

Caption by / Photo by Martin LaMonica/CNET

How about an all-electric Mercedes SUV to go with your Tesla Roadster? Amp Electric Vehicles is making plans to release this electric Mercedes ML SUV next year. It will cost $35,000 more than the $50,000 gasoline version so it's certainly a luxury car. Amp Electric Vehicles, though, is making other after-market conversions of Jeeps and other vehicles for fleet owners and consumers in other countries. For example, it has a deal to supply about 1,000 electric vehicles to Iceland, which has a policy geared at reducing oil imports.

Caption by / Photo by Martin LaMonica/CNET

Another car worth watching in the EV race is Ford's Focus Electric which is due out early next year. The car will be all electric and have a range between 85 and 100 miles. The engineering of all-electric cars needs to be completely different as all the controls and components--everything from the cooling system to the heating--needs to be made to optimize electric energy consumption.

Caption by / Photo by Martin LaMonica/CNET
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