Review: The New Electric Cars

11:30 AM PST 10/03/2011 by M.G. Lord
Courtesy General Motors

THR test-drives the plug-in cars featured in Paine's revenge of the electric car.

Cars are like Rorschach ink blots -- evaluating them reveals as much about the reviewer as the vehicle. One can assess some things objectively: Does a car feel peppy on the freeway? Is its regenerative braking firm or vague? But design is subjective -- and often, as The Wall Street Journal car columnist Dan Neil has observed, it plays to unconscious yearnings. For example, some people like the round headlights on, say, a Mini Cooper or a Fiat 500 not because they are retro but because of neoteny: The big lights subliminally suggest an infant's eyes, making the car seem cute, like a puppy.

The Chevy Volt is not cute. It has a powerful, authoritative feel, which apparently is a hit: 90 percent of its sales have been to "conquests," GM's term for defectors from other brands. At first, I felt like I was driving a Sub-Zero refrigerator -- not because the car is large but because I usually drive a Volkswagen Jetta or an Audi TT. (And I missed the front-seat lumbar support that the Jetta, priced far lower than the Volt's $40,280 sticker, possesses.) The Volt exudes professionalism, from its business-suit colors ("Veridian Joule," a metallic gray-green, is most popular) to the two business-class seats in back. (The car's lithium-ion batteries run down its length, splitting the rear seat.) It has a camera to assist in backing out -- essential because of the rear window's limited visibility. And its brakes are magnificent. They slowed me (and a GM rep) from 55 mph to about 5 mph when an ancient Pontiac darted across four freeway lanes in front of us. According to Chevrolet, the Volt charges in 10 hours at 120V -- or as little as four hours with a 240V adapter. It can travel 50 miles on a charge, but its gas engine, which generates electricity, extends the range to about 350 miles.

The bubble-like cabin of the Nissan Leaf  is pure George Jetson -- never mind that Nissan's aerocar remains on the ground. Its 107 horsepower feels confident on the freeway. Unlike the Volt, which has a traditional dashboard, the Leaf's driver-interface shouts its uniqueness, beginning with a stubby joystick that you shove forward to reverse and back to drive. With no gas-powered backup, some Leaf owners may experience "range anxiety" -- a fear of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. But when the range of the Leaf that I drove fell to 19 of its purported 100 miles, a polite female voice from the GPS pointed me to a list of nearby charging stations -- of which there are many in Los Angeles. Nissan says the car can be charged at home in four to eight hours or in a half-hour at a quick-charge station. Still, on a hot day, I found myself choosing "eco-mode" (aka no climate control) and rolling down the windows. To conserve battery power, the clever, keyless "Nissan connection" enables you to turn on the climate control from a remote location, so you can adjust temperature while the car is plugged in.

If the Volt is the PC of electric cars, the Tesla Roadster is the Mac. Tesla sells its cars not in dealerships but in its own stores, patterned after those of Apple. The company prioritizes style: The body of its Roadster is a modified Lotus Elise. It also prizes performance: The Roadster can go from zero to 60 in less than four seconds. More astonishing, because it has a direct-drive transmission, anyone can achieve this performance. You don't have to shift like a pro -- or shift at all. In the early 1900s, electric cars proliferated. They were largely marketed to women because they were easy; they didn't need to be cranked to start. This is the dark secret of the mighty Tesla Roadster: It is easy to drive. (No doubt car snobs come around.)

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