Electric Cars: A Buyer’s Guide

A special, online-only supplement to Daniel Albert’s “Electric Cars,” published in Issue 10. Buy the issue.

Thinking about becoming the kind of person who drives an electric car? It won’t be easy. Actually, owning the car will be remarkably easy: no more need for an auto mechanic (how often does your toaster need a repair?), no more emissions inspections, and no more trips to the gas station. You may miss standing at the pump, breathing the fumes next to the sign that warns against breathing the fumes. You may miss spending $20 or $30 or $40 a week on fuel. But oh, to be on the cutting edge!

The first thing to do is check your bank account. Got $110,000 to spare? Then you want a Tesla Roadster. It only seats two and has limited luggage space, but it accelerates faster than a Porsche and you get $7,500 back from the feds. You can use that tax rebate to buy the $2,000 fast home charger that puts 56 miles of range in the batteries every hour.

The Tesla will get you plenty of attention, based as it is on the sporty Lotus Elise—but if you really want attention, spend your hundred grand on a Tango. The Tango is either one of the coolest cars almost available or one of the silliest. It performs just like a Tesla, with lightning acceleration and go-cart handling. But it is narrower than some motorcycles—just one meter wide—and as with a motorcycle the lone passenger sits behind the driver. The result is a hatchback that makes a Honda Fit look like a Ford Excursion. Small just isn’t the word. The Tango has far less range than the Tesla, but this can be overcome by buying the Tango’s range-extending trailer, a small generator you tow behind. Still, unlike Tesla, which has opened dealerships and secured long-term backing from the founders of PayPal and Google, among others, Tango’s future may be limited to selling kit cars (still over $100,000, some assembly required).

A more cost-effective all-electric solution is the Nissan Leaf. You’ll have to wait in line, though: Nissan announced as of June 9 that 20,000 people have signed up to preorder the Leaf, including 13,000 in the US. (I am somewhere in that line, having put down a $99 refundable deposit.) The sticker price is about $33,000, but again the feds are pitching in $7,500, and don’t forget the $1,500 a year you’ll save on gas. The Leaf is a typical five-door hatchback, all electric with a 100-mile range after an eight-hour charge from a 240-volt outlet. The car is expected to be available later this year, but only in a few, mostly warm places (cold weather cuts into the range). The first rollout will be in Orlando, because Nissan, Renault, and the City of Orlando have partnered to provide a bit of charging infrastructure—showing again how important it is for government to get more enthusiastically into the electric car game.

Therein lies the problem with the all-electric options: you will have to be patient. China’s battery and automobile maker BYD once promised the electric e6 hatchback would reach California in 2010, but that promise seems to have slipped to 2011. BYD, which stands for “Build Your Dreams,” is now struggling with rapidly declining sales, and many analysts question whether it has the technological know—how to bring a battery electric hatchback with a promised 200-mile range and ten-minute recharge capability to market anytime soon. Nevertheless, Warren Buffet bought a 10 percent share in the company and continues to show his support.

While the Chinese still struggle to prove they can make a car with enough quality and safety to enter the American and European markets, the Europeans are making their own promises. Fiat says an electric variant of its gorgeous little 500—the Cinquecento—will arrive by 2012. BMW promises the same for its Mini and raises the stakes with the pledge of a cleansheet, carbon-fiber city car by 2013.

If you still suffer from Range Anxiety, you need the Fisker Karma, which checks in near the $100,000 mark. It’s a plug-in hybrid rather than a full-on battery electric, but it boasts over 400 horsepower and looks like it sprang from a wild night of passion between a Camaro and a Jag. The promotional materials are all spiked heels, melting ice, and lipstick. The federal government, which seems to be doing everything it can to slow the adoption of all-electrics by promoting plug-in hybrids, just awarded Fiskar a half-billion dollar loan. That money is supposed to help the company build a family sedan in the $40,000 range in US plants in Delaware—thank you, says Joe Biden—and Michigan.

If you want to see the USA in your electric Chevrolet, try the Volt, a plug-in hybrid. Larry Nitz, director of hybrid and electric powertrain engineering for GM, told reporters in May that a “modest customer” can travel forty miles in all-electric mode without the air conditioning turned on. The IC engine extends the range to about 300 miles. GM has rolled its first Volt off the assembly line in Hamtramack, Michigan, and plans for real production to begin in November. Charging details remain sketchy, but the plan seems to be for a simple system that plugs into any regular or 240-volt appliance outlet. That might be a good strategy for the average American buyer.

But GM’s legacy with new technologies is not inspiring. In the 1960s, faced with competition from the air-cooled, rear-engined VW Beetle, the company debuted the air-cooled, rearengined Chevrolet Corvair, with an aluminum engine that proved difficult to manufacture and a body that tended to roll over and crush the occupants. (It subsequently became the cover girl for Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed.) In the 1980s the company began building diesel engines that were so plagued with problems they effectively soured Americans on diesels for a generation. The Volt may work fine, but history suggests it will have some tragic flaw we don’t yet imagine. Will the batteries quickly start to lose capacity? Will the clock radio get AM reception?

The more pressing problem is figuring out just who the Chevrolet Volt is for. The same car with a 40-mpg IC engine and five seats instead of four, the Chevrolet Cruze, starts at $17,000. Certainly you will save money on gas over time, but even after a $7,500 tax credit the Volt comes in at $33,500—about $7,500 more than a Nissan Leaf. At that price, it really should be a Buick.

In the end, the Volt’s future is uncertain, and buying one may be an act of blind faith and misplaced patriotism. GM announced in July that it plans to increase 2012 production from 30,000 to 45,000 units, so there must be a good number of blind patriots out there. Trouble may ensue, but it’s heartening to see the most troglodytic automaker finally reaching the on-ramp to the future.

If you don’t want to wait for the automakers to catch up, you can buy a conversion kit and install it yourself or have it done. Among the popular car models for conversion are the Geo (Chevy) Metro/Suzuki Swift, the Chevy S10 pickup truck, and various Volkswagens. The feds will let you write up to $4,000 off your tax bill if you go this route—and four grand will get you the most basic kit with limited range and power. But you will spend upwards of $10,000 for better specifications, and you will need to buy a donor warranty to boot. What you get for that money is a used vehicle that won’t have the latest safety features, electronics, or warranty.

On the other hand, you may end up with the coolest car in the neighborhood. I’ve finally got my converted 1971 Beetle running regularly. There were sparks, and at least two big puffs of smoke, though no injuries. The radio still changes stations when you put on the headlights, but that’s just character, and every car needs that.

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