Chic or Geek: Is an Electric Car for You?

An electric car enthusiast gets behind the wheel of a Nissan Leaf.

Nov. 1, 2010— -- I have always wanted to own an electric car. It's a longing for something that until recently has been nearly unobtainable.

Just as there are some who hope for an election season without attack ads, or a professional football team in Los Angeles, I can always set aside the gloom and look toward the future, praying that just maybe the day will come.

Los Angeles is a city where what you choose to drive often defines your very existence. It's a place where solar panels on the roof – which I have – or driving a hybrid – which I do – is an act that could easily send you from borderline chic to borderline geek.

Maybe it is geeky to admit publicly that I have spent hours scouring eBay and Craigslist looking for an affordable used electric RAV4, or a cast-off electric pick-up truck. But the options are pretty slim if you want to drive an electric vehicle (or EV) that does not pollute.

How to Find a Combustion-Free Ride

My desire is to get away from combustion. I don't want to burn fossil fuel in my vehicle to obtain my propulsion. Most Americans drive less than 40 miles commuting to work. My drive to work is about 15 miles roundtrip.

Sometimes my work assignments will take me further afield, but most days are 50 miles or less, something which is well within the range of an electric car. So I'm still committed to finding that combustion-free ride. Does that mean I'm geek material?

One dictionary describes a Geek as "a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked."

Could it be that my longtime desire to drive an electric car will send me careening into a social class reserved for those in shirts with plastic pocket protectors? Not to mention those black rimmed glasses held together with strips of old tape.

While I would try not to obsess, I would scan the automotive websites, anxiously looking for production models that would be affordable with a mass market appeal.

GM's much-touted Chevrolet Volt is nearing production, but since it is a hybrid, it burns gasoline.

States Give Electric Car Buyers Thousands of Dollars in Rebates

Earlier this year, I set my sights on the Nissan Leaf. Just the name alone elicited visions of my much-loved xeriscape all-native California garden. The Leaf is a 100 percent electric four-door hatchback with seating for five. It has a laminated lithium-ion battery that will give the car a 100-mile range.

When Nissan began accepting on-line reservations for the Leaf, I realized that this was the moment of truth. Each reservation requires a $99 refundable deposit. Some 20,000 vehicles will be sold to those who are ready to walk the walk. It was time for me to place my shaky non-geek fingers on the keyboard and join the faithful, the committed.

There are significant tax benefits to owning an EV. Buyers will receive a $7,500 federal tax credit, and several cities and states offer cash rebates in the thousands of dollars.

California residents can drive solo in the HOV lane. Many cities offer free parking to drivers of EV's. The Nissan Leaf has an MSRP of $33,720, but after tax savings, the price is $26,220. After available cash rebates, the price can be substantially lower.

Nissan Leaf Comes With Satellite Radio, Navigation

I won't be sacrificing anything. The car is roomy and it has all the comforts of an upscale compact. It comes standard with lots of cool "stuff" like satellite radio and navigation, including directions to the closest recharging stations.

Through a $99 million grant from the Department of Energy, the "EV Project" will locate fast charge stations in six states. They will be strategically placed in shopping malls, airports, and even select Costco and Best Buy stores. The EV Project will also pay to install chargers in qualified private homes, including mine, and pull data from the cars via the web while the cars charge overnight. The hope is that Americans will buy as many as 5 million EV's in coming years.

As an expectant Leaf parent, I recently attended a public presentation and test drive of the EV here in Los Angeles. It was my opportunity to drive the car and I was in good company.

Hundreds of Los Angelinos showed up ready to send high amperage to the 80 kilowatt motors of the more than 20 cars that were used for the demonstration. The response was exhilarating as citizens of all races and creeds forged a common bond in true alternating current synchronous acceleration.

Reaching a 'Zen' Moment Behind the Wheel

My test drive was the culmination of years of desire. I wasn't sure that the drive itself would equal the excitement and anticipation leading to the actual moment. My mind was spinning with so many facts and figures about the car, that sitting in it, and driving it almost became overwhelming. I was the kid in the candy store.

I'm happy to say that I reached my "Zen" moment quickly. I decided to just drive the car. Don't overthink this, I told myself. Enjoy the experience.

Enjoy it, I did.

The car is easy to drive. Since it is an electric vehicle, it is extremely quiet. The torque of the electric motor drive is nearly instantaneous, resulting in quick and smooth acceleration. The regenerative braking, which returns power back to the vehicle while slowing, is smooth and quiet.

The driver's display is informative, but does not try to overwhelm you with too many rolling factoids. I'm looking forward to visiting the gas station, just to clean my windshield or check out the restrooms.

Don't just take my word for it. In future installments, I will introduce you to my new EV and other EV drivers, as well as plug-in vehicle advocates who are dedicated to giving you even more reasons to Go Green.