My Nissan Leaf life: A good (and affordable) plug-in is hard to find

Latest installment of Monitor writer Mark Clayton's quest to buy a plug-in car: There are more than a dozen plug-in vehicles, but high costs and the lack of availability quickly narrow down the choices.  

Courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.
Toyota's RAV4 EV is an intriguing plug-in option. But reportedly, it's only being sold in California. And at $50,000, it's sticker price could be out of reach for many American families.

– Third installment in an occasional series

For those eager to sail past gas stations aboard one of the new electric drive cars, 2012 would seem to be the best of times with a dozen new plug-in vehicles hitting dealer showrooms this year. But don’t get too excited. There's less here than meets the eye.

Sure, if you are Justin Bieber or a wealthy executive, you can trot down to a Fiskar showroom and pick up a $100,000 Karma electric sports car anytime. But for those of us on a budget, the choices begin to narrow. Throw in the problem of limited availability and, suddenly, you’ve got to do some research just to find a car you can afford to buy.

At the time I began thinking about a "plug-in" for our new family car, in late 2011, I was leaning toward a Chevy Volt. So, after calling several Chevrolet dealers, we finally found one in Mendon, Mass., that had a red Volt demo model. It wasn’t a great experience. The salesmen seemed to ignore it. It wasn't a technology they had been trained on, one of them told me. Finally I rounded up a guy with a little knowledge about the Volt, but I knew more about it than he did.

Still, it was fun to sit in the first-of-a-kind vehicle. (GM has since ramped up its sales force and marketing and the Volt is now widely available.)

A few weeks later, we visited a nearby Ford dealer, looking for an Escape Hybrid - the plug-in version - that we had been told would be there. It wasn't. So we sat in a regular Ford Escape and tried to imagine. Three days later Ford announced it was canceling its previously announced plans to create a Ford Escape plug-in hybrid – and build instead a brand new plug-in hybrid, the CMax Energi. The Ford Focus all-electric EV model also wasn't available at that time and is only now slowly emerging at dealers nationwide.

Obviously visiting dealers was a waste of time.

What we learned – and what's still true – is that the more serious you become about dumping gasoline from your life, the quicker you get focused on what's available. One of the best sources is www.plugincars.com, which lists plug-in vehicles and when they’re expected to show up on the showroom floor.

A quick check today finds that 25 plug-in vehicles – a mix of plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and electric vehicles (EVs) – have been announced with just 16 expected to be unveiled in showrooms this year. Of the 16, just 11 are listed as available "now," the site reports.

But if you want to actually buy one, you'll have to sift further. Yes, Mitsubishi in late 2011 was offering an all-electric compact, but only in a few states. Ford was saying the Focus EV was coming nationwide, but where was it in November 2011? Honda was dragging its feet, too. We loved test-driving the Honda Fit when it was new a few years ago and wanted an EV version. Then we found out Honda was only making 1,100 of the 2013 Fit EVs – all for lease in California, Oregon and a few East Coast markets next year.

I was also looking for an electric ride vehicle with a sticker price well below $40,000 – and would go at least 40 miles all electric. The Toyota RAV4 EV, for instance, was listed as available "now" but is still, today, reportedly available only in California. And it cost right around $50,000. That knocked the RAV4 out for us.

If we wanted to get a plug-in vehicle in early to mid-2012, it was starting to look like only two vehicles that were in the ballpark on price and availability were the Volt and the Leaf.

The Volt was available in Massachusetts, cost $41,000, and went 40 miles on a charge before the gas engine kicked in. The Leaf was available in Massachusetts, too. It had a 99-mile range on a single charge (EPA's website says it’s closer to 70 miles) and cost $32,800, the plugincars.com site said.

That's when I began to focus on the Leaf.

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