Troy Wolverton test-drives the all-electric Nissan Leaf and plug-in Chevy Volt

Who knew that electric cars could be fun to drive and practical at the same time?

Those were my impressions last week after test-driving the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in Chevrolet Volt, two new cars that will reach showroom floors later this year. The Leaf was zippy, spacious and fun. The Volt felt like a standard family car updated for the 21st century with high-tech features you can control through a smartphone.
I liked them both but for different reasons, and would consider buying either of them if I were in the market for a car.
The Volt and the Leaf represent the vanguard of a new generation of electric cars, but each has its own take on what that means.
The Leaf is all-electric, which means you never have to worry about burning gasoline or having to deal with the maintenance issues of a combustion engine, such as changing the oil or replacing the spark plugs or timing belts. The trade off is that it has a range of only 100 miles — less if you drive fast or run the heater or air conditioner, both of which draw power from the battery.
And once you drain the battery, recharging it is not as easy and quick as filling up at a gas station. Instead, you’ll typically have to wait eight to 20 hours for the batteries to recharge, depending on the type of outlet you use. (Recharging can be much quicker — as little as 30 minutes or so to get an 80 percent charge — at one of the relatively few fast-charging stations.)
The Volt, on the other hand, is what’s called an extended-range electric vehicle. It has a gasoline engine that kicks in after you drain its batteries. Unlike a hybrid, though, where both the gasoline and electric engines can power the car, the Volt’s electric engine is the only one connected to the powertrain. Its gasoline engine acts as a generator, creating a charge that powers the electric motor
That setup gives the Volt far greater range than the Leaf and requires much less time to recharge — as little as three hours with a high-power outlet. So you can take the Volt on trips without having to worry about finding a recharging station.
But the Volt’s electric battery will power the car for only the first 40 miles, requiring many drivers to buy and burn gasoline. On longer trips, the benefit of the electric engine will be largely negated because the car will be using the gas engine most of the time.
Neither Chevrolet nor the Environmental Protection Agency has said yet what kind of mileage owners should expect from Volt’s gasoline engine. And owners will face many of the same maintenance schedules and costs that they would with a regular gas-powered car.
In contrast, some of the Leaf’s shortcomings are new ones for car buyers, and serious enough to cause me doubts about its practicality.
It’s all well and good to know that most commutes are under 100 miles. But having a 100-mile limit — and an eight-hour minimum period to recharge — puts severe limits on how you could use such a car. You’re not going to be taking road trips in the Leaf. With a 100-mile range, you could barely get to San Francisco and back from San Jose. And if you tend to run a lot of errands during the day, that range limit might worry you.
I was also concerned about the Leaf’s size, which is about the same as a Honda Fit. It’s a four-door with a small, vertical storage area behind the back seat. That kind of vehicle is great if you’re single and without kids, but it’s too small to meet the needs of many drivers.
That said, I came away from my test-drive of the Leaf impressed. Despite its small size, it felt roomy and spacious inside — in the front seat, at least. Back-seat passengers will feel cramped for legroom because the batteries are under the rear floorboard, raising the level of your feet. Still, the car has ample headroom and an open cabin.
And it was fun to drive — peppy and nimble, with good acceleration. The instruments are easy to read and let you know how many more miles you can drive before you need to recharge.
Despite its limited range, the Leaf is in some ways more practical than the Volt.

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