It's Electric

By Amy Winter

August 20, 2010 5 min read

When it comes to buying cars, consumers want to save money. Smaller and more efficient engines give you more mileage for your gasoline buck. And the upcoming availability of electric cars provides an option that requires little or no dependency on gas prices. Engines that are powered by batteries also give drivers the opportunity to be greener and more environmentally conscious.

The 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt will bring electric cars to mainstream American consumers. Mark Maynard, who writes a syndicated column about automobiles for creators.com, says the upcoming electric vehicles remain new to this technology, but they will be available to consumers with prices that can compete with compact or regular-size gasoline-powered vehicles. John Voelcker, editor at Green Car Reports, refers to them as halo cars. He says that several groups (those concerned about energy security and going green) will want to purchase electric vehicles in order to be early adapters.

"The new electric cars are still pioneers but ready for mainstream use by consumers," Maynard says. "They function with utility and drivability, similar to a regular sedan but quieter."

The pure electric Nissan Leaf runs completely on a lithium-ion battery pack that allows for about a 100-mile driving range, depending on driving and weather conditions; high speeds and high outside temperature will eat up more power. Maynard says it takes about eight hours to charge the Leaf's battery at home. A two-hour charge provides 25 miles, and four hours adds 50 miles. Because the average commute is about 40 miles, the battery life should be sufficient for daily driving.

Nissan's website (http://www.nissanusa.com) refers to the Leaf as saying, "Goodbye gas. Electricity is the new reality." Nissan calls electricity the new fuel. The Leaf doesn't need a starter, an alternator or spark plugs. Instead, an inverter and a battery are under its hood. Similar to a gasoline-powered vehicle, the Leaf's flow of electricity is powered by pushing the pedal.

Even without test drives, thousands of people nationwide have put down deposits to reserve their Nissan Leafs. Consumers can choose from two trim levels: the Leaf SV, for $32,780, and the Leaf SL, for $33,720. Helping to bring down the price is a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 that electric-car buyers will receive.

Chevrolet will release its Volt soon as a range-extended electric car. The Volt uses electricity as its primary power source, and gasoline acts as the secondary source for powering the vehicle. The Volt isn't considered a hybrid because an electric drive unit turns its wheels; conventional hybrids require electric motors and gasoline engines to turn their wheels.

With an average range of 340 miles, the Volt uses electricity during all of its driving time. It runs only on electricity from its lithium-ion battery for the first 40 miles, according to the Chevy website. Then the engine/generator provides another 300 miles with the help of a full gas tank. General Motors recently announced the Volt's selling price as $41,000.

Bigger isn't always better when it comes to choosing a car. Smaller cars are gaining popularity with American drivers. A small car no longer means a basic and cheap vehicle. Small cars now feature luxury-class amenities, such as moon roofs, navigation systems and heated and cooled seats, according to Maynard. In the past, these amenities were kept off in order to keep the prices low. Now you can purchase a car with a smaller and more efficient engine and bigger-car accessories.

More compact and subcompact cars are in the works, too, including the compact Chevy Cruze and the subcompact Mazda2 and Scion tC coupe. Ford will release the subcompact Fiesta for the 2011 model year. Because of the lower price, Ford predicts the Fiesta will be well-liked among millennials -- those who are graduating college and entering the working world. Voelcker says that smaller cars are generally more accepted by younger people living on the coasts and in big cities.

"It used to be that small cars were coarse but thrifty and reasonably reliable," Maynard says. "Ford has staged Fiesta to be able to carry all the luxury and technology features of a much more expensive car and with a ride to match."

Electric and small cars are the way of the future for automobiles. As electric cars grow in popularity, battery-charging stations will be more readily available, allowing these cars to travel long distances.

"The future is electrified," Maynard says. "There will be more electrics coming on line every year -- in every size segment. And each evolution will be lighter and more efficient with a longer driving range."

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