Gone Electric

With Ultra-High Prices at the Pump, There’s Never Been a Better Time to Go Electric
The 2011 model year has thus far been a memorable one for automakers and auto lovers alike, as the first all-electric cars rolled off assembly lines and into dealer showrooms around the U.S. While the electric vehicle (EV) concept has been around for decades, only in the past year have automakers begun to overcome the traditional hurdles of poor performance and limited range due to ill-equipped batteries, among other problems. Today’s lithium ion batteries have allowed a new crop of EVs to not only go faster but much further between charges than their predecessors. This and other technological advances combined with consumers’ interest in saving money and energy–consumers get a $7,500 federal tax credit for purchasing an EV, not to mention additional state incentives–means that we just might be witnessing the dawn of the EV’s golden age.

Each of the new EVs distinguish themselves from one another in various ways, but in general what’s similar is the use of lithium ion batteries, the ability to recharge via 220 volt plugs within six hours, and ranges beefy enough to get the average commuter back and forth to work without the need to recharge in between. Already interested customers can test drive, sign-up for, and in some cases drive away in a shiny new EV, depending on the particular models.

An EV for Everyone

Nissan’s Leaf is a four-door hatchback that was available by the beginning of 2011 for the 25,000 early adopters who committed in advance to shelling out the $23,000+ for one. It reportedly gets 100 miles on a single charge and zips around town with the best of them. And Nissan is partnering with charging companies and various cities to ensure that recharging the Leaf won’t become a related headache.

Chevrolet’s Volt which is already available at Chevy dealers across the country with a price tag starting at over $32,000, can make it 40 miles on a charge but also relies on a small gasoline engine as a back-up generator as needed, extending the car’s range to some 400 miles for longer trips. The roomy four-door EV sedan–already named MotorTrend’s 2011 Car of the Year–represents a real departure for Chevy’s parent company, General Motors (GM), long known as a laggard when it comes to fuel-efficient, forward looking vehicles. GM execs hope the Volt will change all of that, consumers willing.

Ford isn’t one to miss out on an opportunity, and as such has retooled a version of its popular Focus compact as an EV. Only about 5,000 of the electric Focuses have been made available this year. Ford will then ramp up production according to demand in subsequent years. The company has also hinted it will make available a plug-in hybrid of some kind in 2012.

One of a handful of new automakers emerging in the last few years, California-based Coda has launched its own all-electric sedan in 2011. The four-door, five passenger car, which will list for under $40,000, can go 120 miles on a single charge and is excellent on safety features to boot. Another relative upstart with a new EV offering is Fisker, whose racy two-door Karma (base price: $87,900) will turn heads all over town as it’s speeding through 50 miles worth of electricity per charge (it also offers a gas-engine back-up for longer trips). Mass production on the Karma–which goes from 0 to 60 in 5.8 seconds!–is scheduled to begin in February 2011.

Rounding out the lot of new EVs making waves this year is Think’s two-person City which gets 100 miles to a charge and tops out at about 70 miles per hour. The tiny car’s impressive crash safety ratings means the golf cart has really grown up into a real road-ready car. It’s one of the most affordable ways to go electric, with prices hovering around $20,000.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you have upwards of $100k to spend on an EV and you like to move fast, the Tesla Roadster, a two-door sports car that can go from 0 to 60 in a mere 3.7 seconds, has been available since 2009. This year’s 2010 production model of the 2-door Roadster torques up 248 all-electric horsepower to go from 0 to 60 in a mere 3.7 seconds, and runs for 200+ miles on a single charge. Not a bad ride any way you slice it. In 2012, the company is promising to unveil its Model S ($57,400 base) as an all-electric competitor to high performance sedans like the BMW 5 series cars.

Not to be left behind, Honda will roll out an all-electric version of its Fit subcompact in 2012 while Toyota will make available an EV-version of its RAV4. Both vehicles will come equipped with lithium ion batteries and should be able to top 100 miles on a single charge. Toyota is also planning to mass produce a plug-in version of its already wildly successful Prius in 2012, giving hybrid drivers one less reason to stop at the gas pump.

Indeed, with so many greener driving choices now available, 2011 might just go down in history as the year that gasoline-fueled cars became passe. Or one can always hope. Regardless, if it’s time to upgrade your ride, you owe it to yourself and to the environment to take a look at some of these new electric offerings, especially given that there’s now something for just about every price range…and don’t forget about the savings in gas money as well down the road.