My Nissan Leaf life: Want a plug-in car? Consider your lifestyle.

Buying a plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle is more than just buying a car. It's choosing a lifestyle.

By , Staff writer

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    A visitor looks at a new Ford Focus Electric at the International CTIA Wireless Conference & Exposition in New Orleans earlier this month. These electric-only cars require the biggest lifestyle change, because you can only go so far before recharging.
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– Second installment in an occasional series

Avoiding the gas pump by buying an electric-drive vehicle is nice conceptually. Who wants to pay $3 to $4 a gallon when you can cut the bill by about 75 percent by using electricity to tool around town?

But anyone looking into the electric option quickly confronts a flurry of options: Do you go with a conventional hybrid, like a Prius, or a plug-in hybrid, like the Chevy Volt? Should you skip the gas engine altogether and go all-electric with something like the Nissan Leaf?

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There are costs and trade-offs involved with all these choices, of course. But the first question to answer is: How big of a lifestyle change do you want to make? The answer may change as you become more familiar with the options. It certainly did for me.

I was just getting my head around the idea of someday buying a car that would reduce my (and America’s) dependence on oil when a reporting trip took me to Austin, Texas, to report on what a post-oil world might look like. One of my first interviews – with William Jones, a medical doctor with a passion for helping people and for driving fast cars – gave me my first taste of electric-car ownership.

Soon after meeting Bill, we were zipping around town in his cayenne-pepper red Nissan Leaf. Bill wasn’t shy about stomping on the accelerator. "It's frisky," he said.

Who knew that a Leaf can accelerate so hard that it pops your head against the headrest like a Porsche Carrera? Or that it sounds a little bit like a jet fighter (or vacuum cleaner) when it glides to a stop in the garage?

When one of his buddies asked why he would consent to drive a "glorified golf cart," Bill told me his rejoinder was: "It's no golf cart, it's like driving the Starship Enterprise." Cruising around Austin with only the tires purring on pavement and no engine noise at all, I had to agree.

On that same Austin trip, I drove with David Tuttle, a computer engineer, in his Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid with a small gas engine. He gets 40 miles on a charge before the car switches nearly silently to its gas engine. But that switch seldom comes because like so many Americans, he rarely drives that many miles in a single day.

"It's been four months since I visited a gas station," David told me. "There are all sorts of good uses for oil – but transportation isn't one of them. If more people bought electric vehicles we would import less oil, cut our trade deficit in half, and help our country."

A major bonus: Tuttle let me drive his Volt. The surge from the instant torque was quite real, I discovered.

Conventional hybrids, like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, require little or no lifestyle change. They have big gas tanks and small batteries, which make them less expensive than a Leaf or Volt, but they also mean a bigger fuel bill.

Plug-in hybrids – like the Volt or the plug-in Prius – demand a bit more change. You get a small gas engine and a bigger battery that you have to plug in. You might want to install a pricey charging station in your garage to speed up the recharging process. But a plug-in hybrid also means bigger fuel savings than the conventional hybrid – and, more to the point, it gives you the option of cutting your gasoline consumption to zero, depending on how much you drive.

Electric-only cars – like the Leaf, the new Ford Focus Electric, the Rav4 EV, the Mitsubishi I, and the gorgeous but luxury-priced Tesla and Fiskar models – mean the biggest lifestyle change. You definitely need to install a charging station (otherwise, it takes too long to fully charge these big batteries). You also have to think, at least a little bit, when you go out about how far you're going to go – and whether you might need a charge along the way.

Electric-car owners have different ways of coping with this “range-anxiety.” Bill, the Nissan Leaf owner, has a svelte gasoline-powered Lexus that gathers dust most of the time, awaiting the rare long-distance trip beyond the Leaf's 100-mile range. It helps to have a second conventional car to fall back on for long trips if you go all-electric.

The point is that buying a plug-in or all-electric vehicle is not just about buying a car. It’s about reexamining your lifestyle. You have to do your research, find out your options, talk to owners, and test drive the vehicles so you become comfortable with the technology and knowledgeable about what it might mean for you.

And you can read these occasional posts on how the owner of a 14-year-old Honda Accord and an eight-year-old Odyssey van made his leap into the future of driving. Here's my previous installment.

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