Gavin Green begins a special report on the car in the environment by driving the electric Toyota, then (right) reveals 10 fun cars that pass the pollutant test and 12 that top the shame file
If the top 10 cars on the opposite page are green, then the Toyota RAV4 EV electric is a sparkling emerald. On sale in Japan and America, and available for hire in Jersey as part of a green transport programme promoted by the local government, it emits no tailpipe pollutants at all. And on the move, it's as quiet as an ocean breeze.

More surprising, it is superb to use. I have never driven an automatic four-cylinder car as smooth and unfazed as this RAV4 EV. Forget all the old milk float connotations; this is no whispering wimp, battling with bicycles and obstructing traffic as it whooshes the pintas along at walking pace. The 61bhp EV accelerates as briskly as most other cars, and can cruise at well over the speed limit. Its top speed is 77mph.

The batteries are under the floorpan, in a special compartment. As the RAV4 is nominally an off-roader (but is never used off-road), it has lots of ground clearance. You don't notice that a good 6in of clearance are given over to the battery pack. The batteries are special nickel- metal hydride units, developed by Panasonic. Not only are they lighter than conventional lead-acid batteries; they store 50 per cent more energy.

It is a simple car to drive. Put the key in the ignition, then turn it one stage further, as you would to engage the starter of a petrol engine. A big green "ready" sign flashes on the dash. Put the gear lever in drive, or reverse, and you're away - noiselessly. The initial sensation, of silent motoring with just a slight whoosh from the special low-friction tyres, is eerily disturbing at first. When you get used to it, it's blissful. Normal cars seem crude by comparison.

There is a conventional automatic gear lever, but just one speed - Drive. On an electric car, there are no gears. There are no steps in the transmission - unlike a normal automatic or manual car - and thus no jerks. There is just one seamless rush; the whole power train is sewing-machine smooth. This is not surprising. After all, its engine is just like a big sewing machine's.

The only unusual feature is the lack of engine braking. Electric engines have no compression; when you back off, there's no loss of momentum. The brakes therefore do extra work. Push a button in the gearlever, though, and the electric motor assists in the braking - and regenerates the batteries at the same time. You can also select a gear lever position that helps recharge the battery on a long, downhill run. There are no other unfamiliar controls.

So why don't we kick the infernal internal combustion habit and all drive RAV4 electric cars? As with most "cars of the future" there's a catch. First, it is not cheap - about pounds 50,000 (most of that cost being the batteries), although if mass production started, costs would tumble. Second, its range is only 120 miles and it takes 10 hours to recharge.

To some people (in fact, to many people) the small range and slow recharging are not practical problems. That's far fewer miles than most people do in a day, especially in town. And you can recharge it overnight, or when you're working in the office. In the five days I used the car, it presented no problem at all. A colleague who has a round trip commute of 105 miles set off with some trepidation, however. He made it, with the battery charge gauge just nudging the yellow zone.

The other spoilsport statistic is that, all-round, electric cars don't in fact cut pollution. In countries that mostly use oil or coal-fired power stations - such as Britain - you're simply transferring the pollution from tailpipe to power station. And as power stations already produce much more pollution than cars, that's not so clever.

Toyota does not see the RAV4 Electric as the answer. The company sees it as a step towards more socially responsible motoring. Soon, we'll start to see practical hybrid electric vehicles (electric cars using on- board, petrol-powered generators). Longer term - 10 to 15 years - we should be able to buy electric cars that use hydrogen fuel cells - but even these will not truly be green until the hydrogen can be produced without burning fossil fuels.

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