Unless you’re pushing 100 years old, you probably don’t remember the first wave of electric cars that rolled along America’s roads in the early 1900s. Before the internal gasoline engine was adopted as the standard means of automotive propulsion, different energy sources were tried, including steam power and electricity. Beautiful ‘horseless carriages’ ran on a series of electric batteries that gave enough range to make a few trips around town. Electric cars were primarily driven by women, who didn’t want to have to deal with cranking a gas engine to start it (before Cadillac introduced electric starters), didn’t have to learn to shift gears, and didn’t want to deal with the mess and hassle of oil and gasoline. Iconic names such as Baker, Detroit and Milburn built the early 20th century electric cars that often came with luxurious interiors and even flower vases.
Fast-forward 100 years, and what’s old is new again, as a number of automakers are building cars that run on electricity alone.
The first mass-production electric-only vehicle is the Nissan LEAF. The most remarkable thing about the Leaf is how unremarkable it is. That is to say, it’s a typical economy-sized five-door hatchback with room for five, plus a cargo area. With a range of 100 miles and a top speed of 90 mph, the LEAF will meet most people’s everyday needs. Just plug it in at night, and the car will be ready to go in the morning. As electric cars become more popular and plentiful, charging stations should appear in garages and parking lots, providing charging while you’re at work or getting groceries.
The LEAF’s interior is typical of a modern economy car, with touch-screen radio controls, automatic climate control, heated front seats, power windows and locks, cruise control, tilt steering and six air bags. Navigation is standard and a back-up camera is optional. There’s a decent amount of cargo room under the hatch and the rear seats fold down, but there’s a big hump for the batteries between the two. Room in the heated rear seats is adequate, though head room could be tight for tall people, and leg room is largely dependent on the generosity of front seat passengers.
After engaging the push-button starter, the dash alights, but no sound is heard. The transmission transmits power to the front wheels and is operated by a mouse-like control in between the seats that allows you to engage forward or reverse, park or neutral. Brakes are good, and regenerative braking helps recharge the battery as you brake. The LEAF is more quick than fast, due to the large amount of torque that you have from the start, so there’s no problem keeping up with traffic or merging onto a highway. Safety features include traction control, stability control and ABS brakes. It’s often hard to gauge speed because there’s no engine noise to guide you. Fortunately, the large digital speedometer is easy to read atop of the dash gauges, and beneath is a range indicator so you know how much farther you can go before you need to recharge. It feels well-built and handles comparably to any quality modern economy car. Though it costs a fair amount more to buy, the initial price is offset by fuel savings over the life of the car.
Bommarito Nissan’s Steve Colesworthy says the most noticeable feature of the Leaf is how unnoticeable it is. “It drives like a luxury car, quiet with plenty of room, but it’s environmentally friendly, cheap to operate and very user-friendly.”
Prices for the LEAF start at about $36,000, but there’s a $7,500 income tax credit to help offset some of that initial cost.
The other type of electric vehicle is one that runs solely on electricity, but has an internal combustion engine that generates electricity, thus extending the vehicle’s range indefinitely. You just have to buy gas for the engine, the same as you would for a normal car. Such is the case with the Karma by Fisker, a new car line building an exotic electric sedan that competes in performance and styling with the Porsche Panamera and Aston Martin Rapide, but is in a class of its own being powered solely by an electric motor.
At first glance, the most notable thing about the Fisker is its beautiful styling. Dramatic curves and angles combine to create a sedan design that truly stands out in today’s world of look-alike cars. The interior is six-figure-car luxurious, with acres of sumptuous leather, real wood, a sophisticated touch screen interface for audio and ventilation with navigation and back-up camera, and highly bolstered seats front and back. Rear-seat room is a bit cramped, and entrance and egress are hindered by the sharp slope of the rear window, but that’s the price you pay for looking good. The trunk is relatively small due to the placement of the batteries. A solar panel on the roof runs accessory items to preserve battery power for propulsion.
The big performance advantage to electric power is that you get all the torque (twisting power used for acceleration) instantaneously, so you have full power the second you step on the go pedal. Horsepower is rated at 403, and torque at an earth-stopping 959. With the Fisker’s powerful electric motor and rear-wheel drive, this means neck-snapping zero-to-60 times and tons of torque power on tap whenever you want it. Throw in a stiff suspension with sports car-like handling, good brakes (with regenerative braking) and excellent steering feel, and this really is a fun car to drive. The only thing missing is the roar of an engine (but you can buy a CD of engine sounds if that really bothers you). Range on electricity alone is about 100 miles, depending on how aggressively you drive.
Plaza Fisker’s Rob Jackson brags of the Karma, “It has unique looks and is a super-car for around town. Best of all, if you stay within the electricity limit and recharge it, you never have to go to a gas station.”
Like any super-car, the Fisker Karma has a super-car price of $103,000 to $120,000, depending on trim level and options. At least you can keep your wallet in your pocket as you pass gas stations.