After driving prototype electric vehicles from GM, Ford, Nissan, and Mini, plus the production version of the Tesla Roadster, John Voelcker brings us his impressions from Silicon Valley, Detroit and New York. The electric future may be less foreign than you imagine.

Most new car buyers still have only a dim notion that they’ll soon be able to buy motorway-capable electric vehicles from major manufacturers. Even the Tesla Roadster, beloved of car geeks and 14-year-old boys everywhere, has barely registered on the public at large.

But carbon concerns in Europe, and more stringent fuel-economy regulations in the States, are prompting a push into electric vehicles. With large-format lithium-ion cells heading for mass production, and a public trained to plug in its mobile phones every night, the stage is set for the launch of plug-in cars by existing OEMs, starting with the Chevrolet Volt in November 2010.

Since March, we’ve driven four prototype EVs as well as the Tesla Roadster. In three cases, the “production intent” electric drivetrain was housed in a body that had nothing at all to do with what the final car will look like. That said, they were three of the most refined mules we’ve ever driven, though that was perhaps to be expected when carmakers offer up works in progress to the press.

The Tesla, of course, is now a production car; the company just proudly trumpeted its 500th delivery. The last of the five, the Mini E, is from a limited run of 500 Minis converted to battery power. It was, in some ways, the most disappointing of the quintet.

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We tested the GM, Nissan, and Ford prototypes on short, closed courses, as some weren’t licensed for public road use. Based on 5 to 30 minutes behind the wheel, all three of those vehicles drive pleasantly and predictably. They were, in fact, remarkably … unremarkable.

Driving: Just like normal, but different (and quieter)
All three accelerated quietly and smoothly, and performance seemed entirely adequate to keep up with US traffic. In fact, each accelerates, brakes, and drives exactly like a quiet, smooth C-segment saloon. If, that is, that saloon happened to have a torquey engine mated to an automatic so quiet you couldn’t hear it shift—ever.

Electric motors put out maximum torque at 0 rpm, so all three moved smartly off the line from rest. We were able to chirp the inside drive wheels without much difficulty when accelerating around a tight corner. But all five cars felt heavy for their size, not surprising given the hundreds of pounds of battery pack each was carrying.

With one exception, the cars had superbly integrated regenerative braking. The software that blends regeneration with friction brakes, simulating the feel of standard brakes, is hard to do well. It’s a credit to the engineering teams that, by and large, it was impossible to notice any difference from a petrol car in the braking.

Four of the five cars we tested seem so normal they’ll likely make the average driver completely comfortable with electric drive in a single day. And we suspect that drivers of the future will quite like their torque, relative silence, and lack of drama. Electric drive may be radical, but it’s also extremely easy to get used to.

But there were major differences among these five vehicles; each is worth its own discussion.

2012 Nissan EV prototype
The Nissan “EV” we drove was the company’s production-intent electric powertrain mounted in a right-hand-drive model of the last-generation Nissan Cube, which was never sold in the States. This was our shortest drive, just a few laps around a large parking lot, and the car performed fine under those limited conditions.

The actual Nissan EV will be a dedicated model that doesn’t share styling with any petrol model. It will be launched soon—possibly this fall at Frankfurt. Hundreds of early production models will go to fleets and utilities late in 2010, and global retail sales start in 2012.

Nissan says the car will offer 100 miles of range. The company modeled range using a data set that simulates usage in mixed Los Angeles traffic—which averages more than 80 mph on motorways, along with frequent use of the air conditioning. In other words, real-world conditions.

We didn’t do any timing runs, but Nissan’s Mark Perry, director of product planning strategy, told us “you’ll be able to get a speeding ticket in every state.” That translates to at least 90 miles per hour. Though Nissan didn’t quote specs for the battery pack, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests it holds roughly 32 kilowatt-hours of energy.

Nissan says a full charge takes just 4 hours using 220-Volt power. The built-in charger will also accept 480-Volt “fast charging,” which will take 26 minutes to refill the battery to 80 percent of capacity. (It takes far more time to get that last 20 percent in without damaging the pack.)

Unlike GM and Ford, Nissan controls its own lithium-ion cell manufacturer. The company, Automotive Energy Supply Corp., is a joint venture with NEC Corporation to make laminated lithium-ion cells based on a manganese chemistry. The powertrain and vehicle architecture will be used both by Nissan and by its alliance partner Renault, which is planning its own line of electric vehicles for Europe on roughly the same schedule.

2011 Chevrolet Volt mule
General Motors may have declared bankruptcy, but the company reaffirms almost daily that the Volt program remains on schedule and fully funded. More than 18 months before buyers will walk into a Chevy dealer and test one, we went to GM’s Warren Technical Center to drive it.

At least, we drove the electric parts of the Volt. GM isn’t ready to show off the mode in which the 1.4-liter engine powers a generator to provide enough charge to the 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack that the Volt will run for a further 300-plus miles after it’s used up its 40-mile electric range.

Why 40 miles? Because 78 percent of Americans drives 40 miles or less a day. They may never refuel the Volt; their local utility will sell them all the “fuel” they need right through the mains. But GM “wanted to make a real replacement for the first car in the household”, said Weber.

That meant addressing what GM calls “range anxiety”—that gnawing worry that an electric car might not have enough juice to get you home. For the other 22 percent, the Volt will run on a electricity and then petrol to power the “range extender” internal combustion engine.

Our Volt “mule” was a set of Voltec components in the body of a 2010 Chevrolet Cruze. It had been hard-used, logging 13,000 miles in just eight months. Vehicle line director Tony Posawatz said it also had some of the oldest software of any mule. Frankly, we wouldn’t have known it. We listened in vain for inconsistencies in power delivery, but couldn’t find any.

The Volt team is particularly proud of the lack of motor whine, and because the powertrain has no transmission, you hear no changes in tone from shifts that match gearing to road speed. In fact, the car delivers a smooth, continuous flow of power from rest to speed, but the loudest noise is tire roar.

The goal for the production Volt is 0 to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds; ours did it in about 9.5 seconds. We couldn’t test top speed, which GM says will be 100 mph, but certainly from 0 mph to almost motorway speed, the car clearly kept up with traffic.

2012 Ford Focus EV prototype
This past January, Ford startled the Detroit Auto Show by saying it would offer a fully electric Focus in 2011. Magna actually did much of the engineering and is heavily involved with the powertrain/drivetrain systems. Ford is going to build this vehicle at the Michigan Assembly Plant – the former Michigan Truck Plant that is being converted from trucks/SUVs to the Focus.  Magna will be responsible for providing the electric traction motor, transmission, motor controller, and battery charger and related systems. Some 5,000 a year are planned for sale to Ford dealers in the States—no word yet on European sales.

We were lucky to drive the Chevrolet Volt and a development version of the Ford Focus EV just a week apart. Both were refined for test mules, offered good acceleration, ran quietly, and drove just like “normal” cars. Your mum might get in either one and never know the difference, assuming she missed the lack of engine noise when the car powered up.

The biggest difference between the Focus EV and the Volt is their positioning. Unlike the Volt, the Focus is a pure battery electric vehicle without a range extender. Its quoted range is 100 miles, which will cover 9 out of 10 daily trips in the car. On 220-Volt power, it will recharge in six hours.

We couldn’t take the car out on the motorway, but in driving up to 30 mph, it felt showroom-ready. We were particularly impressed with the refinement and lack of noise; the Focus EV may be the most exemplary mule we’ve driven. Indeed, only the bright red kill switch (directly under the driver’s right elbow, ahem) gave away its prototype status.

Pricing hasn’t been announced, but with a battery pack designed for 100 miles of range, Ford is likely to lose tens of thousands of dollars on each one—even if the Focus EV sells for the same $40,000 as the Volt’s rumored price.

The Focus EV will be Ford’s second fully electric vehicle for the States; it plans to offer an electric version of its Transit Connect van sometime next year, adapted from the version developed by Smith Electric Vehicles and now on sale in the U.K.

2009 Tesla Roadster
The Tesla! Ah, the Tesla. We smile just thinking about our three-hour test drive through the curvy roads in the foothills above the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

The Roadster has already been reviewed by much of the motoring press, so our impressions are more personal. Honestly, this is the car that will make a believer in electric drive out of even the staunchest skeptic.

Yes, the Roadster is remarkably primitive—it is, after all, derived from the Lotus Elise, hardly a leader in luxury fitment. And yes, the quoted 240-mile range is nonsense if you keep your foot in it. We chewed through more than 90 miles of indicated range in just 55 aggressive road miles.

The trouble is, the car urges you to keep your foot in it as much as possible, because it’s so damn much fun. Pushing the right pedal gives you an instant, smooth, overwhelming surge of jet-like power. The car simply leaps forward in a straight line from wherever the rear wheels are pointing. It’s utterly addictive.

The Roadster was easy to drive using just one pedal. The regenerative braking seemed to come in at just the right time, and once it became obvious that the car decelerated more aggressively than a conventional car, it took all of two minutes to learn the pleasures of single-pedal driving.

We’ll leave aside the drama around Tesla’s management changes, its discovery that engineering vehicles is actually quite challenging, and the highly uncertain production prospects for the Model S saloon it introduced in April. The recent sale of a 10-percent share to Daimler will give Tesla access to a top-notch parts bin, first-rank engineers, and adult advice on how to run a company.

But even if the company folded up shop tomorrow, the Roadster has made its mark on history. It booted electric cars from the province of the geeky and impractical into the realm of sexy Silicon Valley startups. Not to mention deeply embarrassing the drivers of far pricier supercars.

Did we mention the 0-to-60-mph time of 3.9 seconds? Heh heh. We want one.

2009 Mini E
The last of our five EVs was, in some ways, the one we’d most looked forward to. When BMW unveiled the Mini E at last November’s Los Angeles Auto Show, it was instantly mobbed. The press-drive slots filled up instantly, and it took us six more months to get behind the wheel.

But eager anticipation curdled into profound disappointment. Rarely have we driven a production car less ready for real-world use than this electric conversion. Maybe “kluge” is a better word. What started as a fun, peppy Mini Cooper S has been hacked into something quite different.

Granted, the 500 Mini E cars aren’t for sale; they’re offered only to eager applicants on one-year leases. They’re prototype test vehicles, built in a hurry to give BMW some knowledge of how drivers actually use electric cars in the real world. In the US, 450 drivers in Los Angeles, New York, and New Jersey will spend a year each with a Mini E. The other 50 will go to Berlin.

But one of BMW’s stated goals was to “preserve the Mini experience” in an EV. If the Mini were many hundreds of pounds heavier, desperately rear-heavy, and had the deceleration braking of a lorry with its hydraulic brakes locked on … perhaps. Each of the other four cars we tested was better behaved, more pleasant to drive, and notably more refined in its engineering.

Perhaps the Mini E’s most objectionable feature is its regenerative braking, which replaces engine braking and slows the car while recharging the battery pack. On lift-off, the regeneration took half a second to kick in—and then came on so strong it threw us forward in our seatbelts.

Time and again, we lurched through every slowdown until we learned to feather the throttle and never to lift off abruptly. Acceleration was adequate, but oddly, that too suffered a slight delay—the antithesis of the electric power experience. The Mini E almost felt like it had turbo lag.

Engineers who design hybrids or electric cars will tell you it’s exceptionally tough to program the software to blend power on and off smoothly and integrate the regenerative braking. Done right, you never notice. With the Mini E, it’s impossible to forget that This Car Is Very Different From What It Used To Be.

To give BMW its due, the interior amenities of the Mini E are beautifully done. It has the usual power windows and locks, full heating and air-conditioning, and so forth. Instruments comprise the characteristic Mini huge central speedometer, along with a battery-charge gauge directly in front of the driver.

We hope BMW will put an electric Mini into production, and we suspect this vehicle is very much a learning experience for them. All we can say is: Bring on Mini E rev 2. Please.

John Voelcker

RESEARCH: Market projections for EVs and hybrids