Electric cars can finally claim excellent looks & genuine pick-up, making green the new black

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer

Chevrolet Volt
PURE ELECTRIC | Chevrolet’s Volt, above, can be charged from a home outlet and go 40 miles on nothing but electrons; the Nissan Leaf, below, has a 100-mile radius but a simpler structure.

I have a special affinity for electric cars, going all of the way back to the mid ‘90s, when I drove the infamous GM EV1. It was a wonderful car, fast and quiet, and did all that was promised. It didn’t use a drop of gasoline, traveled 75 miles on an overnight charge and kept pace with a Camaro Z28 in 0–60 acceleration.

But here’s the real jive: People were unwilling to part with Mercedes cash to have a car that would travel more like 40 miles with the A/C running, stereo blasting and power windows racing up and down to retrieve bean burritos when making a run for the border. EV1 died a quiet death until Ed Begley Jr., Ralph Nader and even Phyllis Diller virtually accused GM of propping up the oil companies unilaterally.

Well, no more. Stay tuned for a fleet of great greenies  — one of the best from GM.

Chevy Volt

Charged from a home outlet, the Chevy Volt can travel 40 miles on pure electricity — more than about three-quarters of us drive in a normal day. For that 40 miles, the Volt is every bit as green as a Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf or Smart Electric Drive. Unlike the others, the Volt can drive on another 300 miles after the battery tires by automatically alternating the gas “generator” on and off to recharge the batteries. Call it an extended-range electric.

Chevrolet drove one from Austin to New York City over the July 4th holiday to prove the point. You can see the USA in this Chevrolet.

Prices start at $41,000, minus a federal tax credit that brings it in around $33,500.

Nissan LeafNissan Leaf

You’re also going to bear a barrage of advertising and happy talk from Nissan about its new Leaf electric car. Range is limited to 100 miles, but that’s enough for a lengthy commute, and more than plenty for a city car. Less complex than the Volt, it comes with a $32,780 base price ($25,280 after tax credits). For that money, you’ll get a five-door, five-seat cabin, extra-terrestrial styling and an LCD dash display exquisitely designed to give you fair warning as electrons fly by. Production begins later this year in Tennessee.

Tesla Roadster/Model STesla Roadster/Model S

I once heard Ed Begley Jr. say if GM built cars like the Tesla Roadster, it wouldn’t have problems. Well, if everybody can afford a $109,000 back-to-basics two-seat electric car that goes 245 miles on a charge, he’s right. In the realm of battery-powered rides, that range is way off the grid. For the price, you get supercar performance of 0–60 mph in 3.7 seconds — on par with 636-HP Corvettes. Tesla is also working up a three-row sedan for about $50k that will be built in the formerNUMMI Toyota/GM joint-venture plant in California. Tesla’s technology is so well respected that it is powering the Smart Electric Drive, a product of Mercedes-Benz.

Smart Electric Drive

I love my Smart, but its herky-jerky transmission could use some work. Running Tesla technology, the electrified Smart is as smooth as your razored face and goes about 80 miles on a charge. The $599 lease and very limited production will weed out those not smart enough to get one.

Tesla Roadster/Model S

HIGH  END ECO-LOVE | The Tesla Roadster, left, is an authentic performance car with zero emissions — and a hefty price tag; Mercedes’ gullwing E-Cell, above, will have gearheads panting when it hits the streets in 2013.

Ford, Mercedes and all the rest

Books will be written about this little grounding of the auto industry and its flash to the future, but there is an entire breaker box of automakers going electric. Ford will launch battery versions of the Transit Connect delivery van and its Focus, the latter with a 100-mile range, in 2011. Mercedes will snazz competitors with the E-Cell Gullwing, an electrified version of the SLS by 2013.

Audi, Toyota, Honda, Fiat, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, Chrysler and Fisker all have new electrics on the way. Even Chinese automaker Coda will launch a $41,000 electric sedan with a 100-mile range next year. Markets will be limited at first.

These cars are Jetsons-era dreamy, but are here today. They will change everything you think you know about driving an automobile. No performance-emasculated weenies, they are a jolt in the ass to drive. And that’s no jive.

This article appeared in Dallas Voice’s DRIVE! Supplement November 5, 2010.