Electric car sticker shock 

One of the big news stories this week is the release of two cars that in some circles have been highly anticipated. The Chevy Volt and the Nissan LEAF both are being made available for sales late 2010. The build up to these cars has been significant, especially after the relative success of the Toyota Prius. Toyota proved that a highly publicized unique looking car sold as being environmentally friendly and "green" can attract enough sales to turn a profit.

Are these cars the big event some are treating them as, and will the attract buyers the way the Prius did? Has the age of the electric car finally arrived? Not exactly.

The Nissan LEAF (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car) is a full-on electric car that will retail for just under $33,000 (with the $7,500 tax credit making that somewhat cheaper). Nissan claims the car will have a range around 60 to 130 miles without a recharge.

Chevrolet's Volt is a hybrid kinda-like the Prius but a little different. Like all hybrids it runs on gasoline and a battery, but unlike other hybrids, the drive train is entirely electric, with the 4 cylinder gas engine merely providing recharging for the batteries and power to the electric motor if the car is driven more then 40 miles without recharging. Chevrolet claims the car has a range of 200 miles. The Volt is set to sell for just over $41,000 (minus the tax break).

Neither of these cars pollute much directly (the LEAF has no exhaust at all, the Volt very little). Even though the Volt has a gasoline-powered engine, it only is used on trips more than 40 miles, which according to studies is shorter than the average US commuter trip. Each car is intended for in-city travel and commutes, not long distance vacations or hauling. Will American buyers love these little cars?

The LEAF takes around 20 hours to recharge at home or 8 hours at a special 240 volt recharging station, and Nissan claims the batteries (which cost around $18,000 right now) will last about ten years before needing replacement - they guarantee 8 years or 100,000 miles. The 14 1/2 foot long LEAF seats 4 and has a small cargo space in the back.

According to Chevy, the Volt recharges much faster, only 8 hours at home and less than 3 hours at a recharging station. Chevy also expects ten years of service out of their batteries. It is just over 15 feet long and like the LEAF is a four-seater hatchback.

And that's really the problem. Both of these cars are very expensive - even with the tax rebate. The average American income is just over $38,000 a year, which makes each car a sizable hit on the wallet. The tax break helps, and there's an additional $1,000 tax break if you install a recharging station at home (which costs around $2,000, although a high speed top of the line model can cost as much as $63,000).

That means these cars aren’t made for the average commuter, nor are they a proper town car replacement. The image of these cars being the choice for driving to work or school is simply unreasonable. The only car that Chevrolet sells that costs more than the Volt is the Corvette, with the ZR1 coming in at just over $100,000. In fact, the cost of these cars puts them in the same price range as lower end luxury models such as Audi, Accura, Cadillac and Infiniti. That means its middle management and low executive territory, not blue collar territory and like the Prius is just not a car for the Joe six pack.

And if you need to get them fixed, the only place to turn is the dealer’s lot. Most of these lots won’t be equipped to handle electric car repairs, which means greater expense and time; you can’t go to Joe’s Automotive because they aren’t set up to fix electric cars. And that means even more expense which the average guy can’t afford. And that means these cars cannot be part of a electric car revolution because they’re simply too expensive for the average American to afford or desire, let alone maintain.

The other major drawback is that these cars take a long time to recharge. Even with a docking station the Volt takes three hours to recharge. People get pretty tired of waiting in line one or two cars at the gas station, three hours means you are done driving for a long time. Still, the principle behind them is that they'll save money in the long run by not costing any gasoline, and because they're intended for a work commute, charging overnight is not a problem; you won't be driving it then anyway, right?

As to the first, the cost of gas, no one is exactly sure what the price of gas is going to be even six months down the road, let alone years. However, the average price of gas in America at this time is around $2.70 as of this writing. The Honda Insight costs $20,000  and gets 40 MPG in the city. To make up the extra cost of the Volt, I would have to buy just under 7,800 gallons of gasoline, which would drive me around 300,000 miles. That's longer than most people own most cars, at an average drive distance of 12,000 -15,000 miles per year by Americans, your Volt would have to last up to 20 years longer.

And that doesn't include the replacement cost of the batteries and the electricity to charge your car. Its just not worth it in terms of gas savings.

As to the second, there's where you hit the real snag. As Ralph Kinney Barrett writes in The American, the reason the automobile became so immensely popular and has remained so is the potential each one has. Sure, you might not drive your car much except to work and back every day, but you can, at any time, leap in and drive to the other side of the country. You can drive across the country if you want, stopping briefly for gas. You can load your car up with hundreds of pounds of furniture and gear and drive into the mountains. If there's an emergency, you can just hop in and go, no matter when. Not so with the slowly recharging electric car; even if it is partly charged, how far will it go?  How fast? Carrying how much?

And in the end, while the concept of electric cars is wonderful and one I would love to see viable and common, the United States (and every other nation) is not ready for them. I'm not talking about a paucity of docking stations to recharge with. I mean the fragile, barely-standing electric grid which has for decades been largely unexpanded and sparsely maintained. Every summer electric companies sweat in their air conditioned offices watching the needle push into the yellow as everyone gets closer and closer to overloading.

What happens when this barely-functioning grid gets a huge increase from recharging cars? It browns out and blacks out and transformers start popping like fireworks. I'd love to see the electric car take off, but they aren't ready, we aren't ready, and for now if you want a good high-mileage car, buy a diesel.

About The Author

Christopher Taylor

Christopher Taylor is an author and illustrator from Oregon, the owner of Word Around the Net where he has been blogging for four years. He is a freelance contributor for the Examiner Opinion Zone blog. Christopher also is the owner of Kestrel Arts, a small games and entertainment company.
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