November 9, 2012

News & Features

The few electric-car owners say they love their cars

New York Times News Service

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Chevrolet Volt owners charge their vehicles at a Michigan dealership in September. (General Motors)

Although sales of electric cars have remained slow since they came to the U.S. mass market in late 2010, early buyers tend to be true believers and quite likely to give their new vehicles the benefit of the doubt. For many, the honeymoon period is still on.

Jackie Eskin, a computer consultant in Fairfield, Conn., who works from home, loves her Nissan Leaf electric car, which she has been driving for six months and 2,000 miles. "I'm extremely happy," she says. "It's wonderful, and I love it."

Before Eskin bought her car, she kept track of how many miles she drove each day and found it was rarely more than 15. That convinced her that she could live with the car's 73-mile EPA range rating. "I haven't really experienced range anxiety," she says. Her major issue with the Leaf? It doesn't have a sunroof.

Paul Beerkens, a Chicago-based programmer for a hedge fund, also owned a Leaf, but traded it in for the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt.

Though reports of Volt fires have hurt sales, Beerkens loves his, especially its range of 350 miles or more. He's driven the Volt 4,000 miles and filled it with gasoline only once. Like many Volt owners, he tries to drive the car using mostly electric miles.

"The 40 miles of electric range has been working really well for us, and we have been able to supplement it with public charging when necessary," Beerkens says. On family vacations, he and his wife have persuaded hotel managers to let them plug their car into outdoor outlets. Charging at home, he says, costs about 60 cents, thanks to cheaper nighttime electric rates and the relatively small Volt battery pack. "It is so cheap to drive an electric car," he says.

Dr. Michael Rabara, a Phoenix psychologist, drives a Volt most of the time and his girlfriend leases a Leaf. "We just don't like using gas: the politics, the pollution, the varying prices and the fact that it's a finite resource," he says.

Some people see advantages to both the Leaf and Volt — and so buy both. Felix Kramer of Berkeley, Calif., founder of CalCars.org and Driving

Electric.org, says that "the tough decision is which car to drive." The Leaf has a longer electric range, so that's the car Kramer and his wife favor for around-town driving. For longer trips, the Volt is pressed into service.

Kramer likes the cars, though he says both could use upgrades to their dashboard displays. On the Leaf, for instance, he'd like to be able to see the percentage of remaining charge in the battery, rather than a highly variable mileage-based range estimate that changes with driving conditions. He has put 22,000 miles on the Volt and 12,000 on the Leaf.

Mark Swain, a Valencia, Calif., computer animator, is a serial electric-car driver. He leased a Mini E, the all-electric version of the Mini Cooper, and now drives a Volt. If he has a complaint about the Volt, it's that he'd "like it to be more sporty."

Despite its limited, 100-mile range, Swain says, the Mini E was fine for driving around the Los Angeles area. With batteries in the back, the Mini E seats only two, but Swain has no children and was not seriously hampered by that limitation. He mostly uses electric miles in his Volt and has filled it up with gas only a dozen times, usually to accommodate longer trips.

Converting a car yourself is one alternative for enthusiasts on a budget. James Boncek of Bridgeport, Conn., an information technology project manager at Carnegie Hall, spent only $100 to buy his car — a 1993 Toyota Tercel — but then added $11,500 and five months of his time converting it to an electric with lead-acid batteries. (Yes, such cars can be legally registered.)

Over three years of regular use, the homemade electric has been "absolutely reliable," Boncek says. "It's never broken down on me, and I'd love to do another one."

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