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Just as major car companies were crushing their electric car programs in 2004 and 2005, the perfect storm was brewing on the horizon: volatile gasoline prices, growing acceptance of the realities of global warming, and the realization that fuel economy standards would be strengthened. The automakers went back to the drawing board and emerged with big plans for electric cars.

The first plug-in cars arrived in 2011, giving Americans a glimpse into oil-free motoring. In the coming years, dozens of new electric models will hit the market, providing consumers a choice of brand, size and performance.

Nissan LEAF

The all-electric Nissan LEAF is powered by compact lithium-ion batteries, providing the power to drive at speeds up to 90 mph and deliver a zero-to-60 mph time of around 11 seconds. The LEAF has no transmission and does not need to shift gears as it accelerates, resulting in a very quick and smooth ride. Like most electric cars, it's extremely responsive when you press on the accelerator.

Pros:

  • First purpose-built mass-produced electric car from major automaker
  • Small but roomier than most of the new generation of pure electric cars
  • Gentle handling and solid feel

Cons:

  • Limited availability in many parts of the country
Show vehicle specs

Chevrolet Volt

The Chevy Volt operates entirely as an electric car for its first 35 miles after a full charge, with a motor that can go zero-to-60 in about 9 seconds. It burns no gasoline during those miles, drawing energy from a 16kW lithium ion battery pack. After the first 35 miles, a 1.4-liter engine kicks in to power a generator that sustains the battery charge enough to give the car another 300 miles or so of range. Because the gas engine is an essential part of the Volt's drive system, the car is technically a plug-in hybrid rather than a pure electric car.

Although the Chevy Volt's design is more in keeping with contemporary sedans than other hybrids or electric cars, keep in mind that it has only four seats -- a compromise from using the center tunnel of the vehicle for storing batteries.

Pros:

  • Silent and sporty drive of an electric vehicle
  • Can serve as single family vehicle, due to 300-plus miles of range
  • Luxury feel compared to competition

Cons:

  • Big price tag for a small car
  • Seating limited to four passengers
  • EPA rating for mileage after grid-supplied electricity is depleted is a modest 37 MPG
Show vehicle specs

Coda Sedan

Coda Automotive's electric sedan is based on an existing gas-powered four-door car, known as the Hafei Saibao 3, built in Harbin, China. Re-engineered with a 31 kWh lithium ion battery, the Coda sedan promises a driving range of 120 miles.

The Coda sedan sells for $39,900 -- a drop from the previously announced price, but still hefty for an unproven product. Company executives argue that an electric car is first and foremost about the battery: Coda's active thermal management means cooler batteries in the summer and warmer ones in the winter, which adds up to more consistent range. Coda's 6.6 kW charger is also faster than other chargers -- meaning one hour of charging will provide close to 20 miles of driving, double that of 3.3 kW chargers. Finally, it's the only all-electric sedan with a trunk, versus a hatchback layout.

Pros:

  • Larger batteries means longer promised range
  • Faster charging puts more miles into the battery in shorter time
  • Battery thermal management system ensures range and long battery life

Cons:

  • Unproven company
  • Availability limited to California
Show vehicle specs

Mitubishi i

The i uses a 16 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack -- less than half the size of the Coda and one-third smaller than the LEAF. Its 47-kilowatt motor provides 63 horsepower for a max speed of about 80 mph, with a range of roughly 75 - 85 miles.

Pros:

  • Great size for urban commuting
  • Proven model on Japanese roads

 

Cons:

  • Small and zippy, but overall underpowered, according to initial reviews
  • 85 miles of range at best; can go as low as 60 miles
  • Even U.S. spec car is a tight fit, especially in back
Show vehicle specs

Ford Focus Electric

The all-electric version of the popular Ford Focus compact started to roll out in early 2012. The EV has an EPA-rated range of 76 miles between charges, courtesy of a 23 kWh battery pack. It uses a single-speed transmission. The powertrain, including the motor and gearbox, are packaged under the hood where the Focus usually houses the gasoline engine and related parts.

Ford's strategy is to make an electric car using an already successful platform -- thereby reducing costs and providing potential for higher volumes in more markets. The new Focus Electric will use an advanced lithium-ion battery pack that is liquid cooled to maintain its promised range.

Pros:

  • Remodeled 2012 Focus platform is expected to offer style and refinement
  • Advanced liquid-cooled battery management system

Cons:

  • Priced a few thousand dollars higher than LEAF
  • Hatch cargo compromised by battery pack
Show vehicle specs

Honda Fit EV

Using the popular small-but-spacious format of the Honda Fit, the company will offer a fully capable five-passenger electric car by mid-2012. Honda is not new to electric cars, having produced a limited run of the Honda EV Plus in the late 1990s, as well as the current Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell electric car. The Honda Fit EV promises 70 to 100 miles of range, and a top speed of 90 miles per hour.

The Fit EV has a 94-kilowatt electric motor compared to the Nissan LEAF’s 80-kW motor. But that 17.5 percent boost in power only begins to tell the story about how much quicker the Fit EV is than the LEAF. It scoots. The Fit EV, with its three modes—sport, normal and econ—also gives drivers a lot of control.

Pros:

  • Small but spacious platform is ideal for an electric car
  • Three modes maximize choice of power, regen braking and range
  • Nice fit and finish gives substantial feel to small car

Cons:

  • Only available to lease in limited markets
  • Only 1,100 will be produced over three-year period
Show vehicle specs

Toyota RAV4 EV

Toyota made a big splash when it announced a tie-up with Tesla Motors in July 2010—promising an all-new all-electric version of the RAV4 crossover SUV by mid-2012. The two companies are on schedule to make a pure battery version that is almost identical in appearance to the V6 gas version of the RAV4, offering the same amount of functionality and acceleration. That means zero-to-60 performance in 9 seconds. The goal for driving range is 100 miles—using a 37-kWh battery pack and a 150-horsepower electric motor.

An early prototype tipped the scales at about 3,900 pounds, adding about a quarter-ton or more to the already hefty gas version. That version had tons of pep—in keeping with its Tesla origins—as well as very assertive regenerative braking. The production version is unlikely to have as much horsepower or the strong regen—but it’s hard to tell because Toyota has been quiet about the project.

A relatively high price tag—and limited production—will almost guarantee that the vehicle is more of a test platform than a mainstream product. No word yet on pricing.

Pros:

  • One of the rare all-electric SUVs
  • Lots of performance (at least in the pre-production version)
  • Relatively affordable way to experience Tesla drivetrain

Cons:

  • Likely hefty price tag
  • Test platform could be susceptible to technical glitches
  • Limited production run
Show vehicle specs

Prius Plug-in Hybrid

After years of working to convince consumers that the Prius does not need to be plugged in, Toyota will now offer a plug-in version of the quintessential hybrid. It will use a 4.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack, providing up to 11 all-electric miles after a full charge. Unlike some of its competitors—like the Chevy Volt—the Prius Plug-in Hybrid will take a blended approach, meaning that the gas engine can come on just about anytime that the driver mashes on the accelerator.

Nonetheless, the Prius-with-plug is expected to be rated around 95 miles per gallon.  That’s partly because the car achieves around 50-mpg, after the EV battery is depleted and the car goes into hybrid mode.  The numbers are impressive, especially considering the $32,000 price tag. After a federal tax credit of $2,500, the car dips down below $30,000. The styling and drive feel will be similar to the conventional Prius—which many drivers view as adequate but slightly boring.  Toyota expects to sell 15,000 units in the first year.

Pros:

  • Compelling entry price for a plug-in car
  • Great mileage after EV battery is depleted
  • Prius hatch has surprising versatility and utility

Cons:

  • All-electric range is modest
  • Drive feel lacks the quickness of many electric cars
Show vehicle specs

Fisker Karma

Famed BMW designer Henrik Fisker has created a low, sleek, plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma. It’s been a bumpy road for Mr. Fisker to bring the car from concept to production. Since its first unveiling in 2008, the price of the Karma, first announced at $80,000, climbed to $95,900 for EcoStandard; $103,900 for EcoSport; and $108,900 for EcoChic.

That’s not the only thing that became excessive with the car. Sure, it’s stylish—but its 5,300 pounds resulted in a mere 51-mpg-equivalent rating while running purely on electricity, and only 20 mpg after the battery is depleted.

Pros:

  • Stunning visual design
  • High-end luxury interior combined with massive power

Cons:

  • Excessive weight means relatively low efficiency
  • Initial production models suffered from a series of technical problems
  • Very expensive low-production vehicle
Show vehicle specs

last revised 12/10/2010

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