Range-Conscious Early EVs Likely to Offer Few Frills

Last Updated Jul 24, 2009 1:48 PM EDT

I hopped into my new test car, a 2009 Nissan Versa 1.6, and immediately went into shock. Not only did it have a blanking plate where the radio was supposed to be, but it also lacked power windows and door locks. In fact, it was the barest of bare-bones cars: The only options were the five-piece floor-mat set ($155) and ABS brakes ($250). With a MSRP of $10,990, this car went out the door for $12,090 (including $695 in destination charges).

The benefits? How about 26 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway. Federal fuel economy ratings don't adjust for a car's actual weight and equipment level, but the stripped-down nature of this one (and the lack of power options) means it truly is what the company calls an FEV, or fuel-efficient vehicle.

Nissan is preparing to introduce an as-yet unnamed electric car in the U.S. next year, and perhaps this Ralph Nader version of the Versa is a preview of what is to come. Many of the early EVs I've driven were fairly Spartan, which makes sense because every electrically driven accessory is dependent on the battery and cuts down on range. I recently took a test drive in the new Coda, and found the biggest challenge squaring the relatively basic interior with the $40,000 price tag--otherwise, I liked the car just fine, especially its off-the-line performance.

Today's cars often come loaded, with everything from remote mirrors to power-robbing navigation systems and rear-vision cameras. It's no big deal on a car with an alternator to add fun accessories, but it is a big deal for EVs. Carmakers are already trying to squeeze every surplus pound out of them to extend range. I think we'll learn to adjust--from an emphasis on performance to one on fuel economy and benefit for the planet.

On the newsstand yesterday, I saw a first: the August issue of Car and Driver with "Cool Cars for the Future"--the Fisker Karma, the Chevy Volt, the electric Mini and the Dodge Circuit EV--on the cover. Maybe the great era of horsepower lust is finally coming to a close.

Consumers may have to adjust their expectations, particularly for early EVs powered by today's lithium-ion battery packs. A Versa-type no-frills interior may seem like a step backwards, but it's actually a big leap into the future.