STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The first mass-produced, plug-in electric cars sold in the United States are set to hit auto showrooms by the end of this year. The Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt already have tens of thousands of preorders. So this type of car appears to be ready to move beyond the domain of tech hobbyists and environmentalists. Still, there are plenty of questions about their feasibility.
Here's Andrea Kissack, of member station KQED in San Francisco.
ANDREA KISSACK: I have never been into cars. I don't know an oil filter from an air filter. But my 15-year-old Honda is on its last legs and recently, I've been curious about alternative fuels. So with electric cars around the corner, my dream of green motoring suddenly seems possible.
(Soundbite of door shutting)
KISSACK: Okay. Already, it looks different.
I spent some time behind the wheel of a shiny new, powder-blue, all-electric Nissan Leaf - an aerodynamic, four-door hatchback with a range of 100 miles. Paul Hawson, from Nissan, joins me for a test drive outside the San Francisco Giants ball park.
Mr. PAUL HAWSON (Product Manager, Nissan): You're going to want to turn on the car by stepping on the brake.
KISSACK: It's roomy.
Mr. HAWSON: Oh, yeah.
KISSACK: I'm surprised because I'm like, almost 5'10." And oftentimes, in these small cars, I'm not comfortable.
Mr. HAWSON: You'll find that the rear seat is equally as roomy.
KISSACK: As Hawson launches into car salesmen speak, I search for the brake.
This is the brake, the big one...
Mr. HAWSON: Yes. Yes. Yes.
KISSACK: And this is the gas pedal - oh, wait, you don't call it the gas pedal. What do you call it, the power...
Mr. HAWSON: It would be an accelerator pedal.
KISSACK: Accelerator pedal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KISSACK: The dashboard overwhelms me with a confusing array of digital displays. There's some kind of interactive bar graph that I think is supposed to tell me when I'm about to run out of juice, and a satellite map of charging stations I can use not very many of them at this point. More on that later. After several attempts to start the car...
(Soundbite of beeping)
KISSACK: Whoops, I hit it twice. That was too fast.
(Soundbite of beeping)
KISSACK: Push it in; push my brake on.
Mr. HAWSON: You have to press...
KISSACK: Now, I'm already - can't even get this.
Mr. HAWSON: You have to depress the brake.
KISSACK: I finally manage to start the car, and much like hybrids, I can't really hear anything. As we drive up over the Bay Bridge toward Berkeley, I notice a blind spot because of the small back window. Otherwise, I find my excitement building as the car zooms along.
So one of the things is, this car goes fast. I mean, when you were talking, I noticed I was 72 miles an hour. I didn't even know it. I mean, wow.
Mr. HAWSON: Top speed is 90 miles per hour.
KISSACK: I could get a ticket in this car. It's a wild feeling, driving without a tailpipe. The downside? Instead of a gas tank, which might run an average of 300 miles, a big lithium ion battery pack sits under the car. One charge only lasts for about 100 miles.
I need to figure out how to get around with this kind of limited range. So I check in with car guru Karl Brauer, an editor at Edmunds.com.
Mr. KARL BRAUER (Editor, Edmunds.com): You have to probably have a secondary vehicle that you know is a back-up that you can utilize.
KISSACK: What? I need to buy two cars? Isn't there something else I can do?
Mr. BRAUER: What people need to do is get better about planning - and not assuming that they can just go out and run four different errands, coming back and forth each time.
KISSACK: I'm also going to have to think about how I use my radio, heater, wipers - they can all run a battery down pretty quickly. And that's where the competition thinks it has an advantage. GM's new, midsize Chevy Volt is a hybrid, yes, but a new type of hybrid: a plug-in. It will go 40 miles on pure battery power but then, when that juice runs out, it can go another 300 miles on gas power. GM couldn't make a Volt available for me to test drive. But at a little more than $33,000 after federal tax credits, the car is just too expensive for me.
I ask GM's Shad Balch: Why the high price tag?
Mr. SHAD BALCH (GM): I don't believe the Volt is so expensive. I mean, it's an electric car that can be your only car. So the value that you get out of this car is a pretty good deal.
KISSACK: But Nissan's all-electric Leaf is just $20,000 after state and federal tax credits. That's just more affordable. And it would get me one of California's coveted carpool stickers for low-emission vehicles. But one thing still haunts me: that fancy satellite map on the Nissan Leaf dashboard, showing less than a handful of charging stations out there. I don't want to run out of juice and be stranded by the side of the road. Even driving solo in the diamond lane isn't worth that.
For NPR News, I'm Andrea Kissack.
INSKEEP: And tomorrow, Andrea goes in search of a battery charge.