Test Driving the Nissan Leaf Electric Car

VIDEO: Gas prices climb to record high prices as Middle East conflicts continue.PlayABCNEWS.com
WATCH High Prices at the Pump

Feeling a sharp pain as you pump the contents of your wallet into your fuel tank? Gasoline prices are headed to $4 a gallon, and some experts are predicting $5 a gallon before the end of this year.

Getting better mileage can help cut costs, but the answer to our economic and global security questions can only be found when we abandon our reliance on costly foreign oil.

Imagine never having to look at the price of gasoline, or set foot in a gas station -- unless of course you have a craving for a 48-ounce grape Slurpee or an overcooked hot dog.

I have always wanted to own an electric car, and so took notice when Nissan announced the release of the first mass-produced battery-powered car. In April of last year, 20,000 Nissan Leaf electric cars were made available through on-line registration. For a refundable deposit of $99, I could reserve my place in alternative fuel history.

I typed my credit card number, expiration date and even the three-digit security code, happily clicking "SEND." While my order winds its way through the manufacturing process, Nissan provided me with a shiny new silver 2011 model so that I could share my driving experience with you, our ABCNews.com readers.

Futuristically styled, the Leaf is unlike some hybrids that seem "geeky." It's a compact automobile, but the passenger compartment is spacious, with seating for five.

Simply press a button and the dashboard comes to life with bells, lights, and a colorful, informative display. The driving range is clearly shown on the dashboard or the LCD screen.

The Leaf comes standard with many features normally found on higher priced cars: Satellite radio, navigation, Bluetooth and keyless "ignition" are not options -- they're included in the base price.

At $32,780 it isn't exactly cheap, but subtract the $7,500 federal alternative energy tax credit, as well as other local incentives such as California's $5,000 cash rebate, and price drops to around $20,000.

Unlike hybrids, electric cars are eligible for HOV lane stickers. Some drivers consider the carpool lane perk priceless.

The Leaf is a fun drive. Its low center of gravity is enhanced by the placement of the battery pack, with weight distributed evenly across the car.

It handles well, and the acceleration is quick and powerful. Because there is no gasoline engine to kick in or shut off, as there is in hybrid cars, there is no delay or shudder.

As you press the accelerator the car emits a very cool "spaceship sound" designed to be heard by pedestrians, warning them of your approach. It isn't exactly magnetic levitation, but George Jetson would certainly approve.

The sound cuts out at 20 MPH, the assumption being that pedestrians can't accelerate beyond that range.

According to current research, the average American commutes 23 minutes to work. Using these figures, it's easy to see that most of us do not drive long distances performing our daily tasks. Even driving to work, shopping at the market, or going out to dinner, we're not likely to drive more than 50 miles a day.

When asked about buying an electric car, some drivers express "range anxiety" -- the fear of rolling to the shoulder of the highway with the dashboard flashing, "Driving range = 0 miles."

My wife and I decided to confront our fear by taking the car to Disneyland Park, a 76-mile round trip. Hoping to conserve precious electrons, I slipped the car into "ECO" mode, and headed east toward Interstate 10. Driving in ECO mode feels like a Smart car pulling an Airstream trailer. It prevents rapid acceleration, but it does extend battery life.

While stopped in traffic our attention was diverted to an aging hippie in the next lane driving a old clunker with fins. His 8-cylinder fossil-fueled junk-heap groaned to a stop as he yelled out the window, "Hey man, is that an electric car?"

My wife nodded and smiled.

The Cheech Marin lookalike grinned.

"Cool, man, saving the planet," he said.

Feeling confident, we decided to add seven miles to our journey. We would dare a GPS-guided diversion to a local bookstore. Hours later, a fun time had by all, we left the Magic Kingdom, our chic dashboard informing us we had a 60-mile driving range.

Confident, but a little chilly, I dropped out of ECO mode and turned on the heat. I was surprised to see my range drop to 39 miles, which was approximately the distance home. I decided to turn the heat off, and we arrived, a bit frosty, but with 16 miles to spare.

Its disappointing how little battery technology has progressed over the years. Working quietly however, Nissan developed innovative power packs using ideas the company had been trying to keep from its competitors.

The company did reveal that its battery contains 48 flat "modules," each with four lithium ion cells. Nissan engineers expect the battery packs will last 10 years and hope that used modules will find further use as energy storage at wind and solar power "farms." All battery packs will eventually be recycled.

The car and batteries are both made in Japan, but most production for the U.S. market will move to Smyrna, Tenn., in 2012, the company says.

Electric cars are not for everyone. If you have long commutes, extended road trips, or no access to another car, you should think carefully. It's a good assumption that most initial owners are looking for more than just a new car.

When my car is delivered, I'll drive knowing that I'm not using imported oil, and that some of the power was produced by solar panels on the roof of my house. There won't be any smog coming from my tailpipe, because I won't even have a tailpipe.

Gas stations are fine if I'm looking for coffee or a Lotto Quick Pick, but I won't miss debit or credit, enter your zip code, and select octane grade. As the price of oil rises, I'll just pull my car into my garage at home and plug it in.