Sean O'Grady: Electric cars are getting better all the time – but still lack some of the gas guzzler's magic

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The Independent Online

Joyous as a throbbing, old-school Detroit V8, sonorous BMW straight six, or a frenetic, high-revving Honda may be to the average petrol head, there is nothing that magical about the internal combustion engine, the conventional means for vehicle propulsion for a century or so.

Nothing magical in engineering or economic terms, that is. It achieved its pre-eminence not through some big business conspiracy but because it was the most efficient, reliable, economical and practicable way to power a car, having seen off steam, electricity and various other methods of propulsion around in the Edwardian era. Today's cars are greener, safer and faster than ever before, a tribute to automotive engineers the world over. A modern Ford Fiesta, say, will have kit that could only be found on a Rolls-Royce a few decades ago, and will go far faster than a 1960s Jag. In fact, modern small cars are not so far behind the greenness of an electric vehicle where the source electricity is generated partly from fossil fuels.

But those technicians and designers are now turning their talents to the electric car, and, in an astonishingly short time have made huge progress in eliminating the most serious drawbacks, such as range and cost.

"Range anxiety" is not an enjoyable experience. Unlike a petrol or diesel car, where a filling station is never too far away, the electric motorist is pretty much stuffed if he runs out of juice, and the worry of doing so is enough to put many off. An electric Smart car I drove some years ago makes the point. It proudly proclaimed it was capable of 70mph and a 70-mile range: trouble was it couldn't manage both.

But the Chevrolet Volt, the first real electric car to deserve the label, has changed all that, albeit through the use of a small stand-by petrol motor that will get you home if things go wrong. It's on sale now in the US with a range of 100-plus miles. The Volt will be built as the Vauxhall Ampera by General Motors' European arm.

The forthcoming Toyota Prius Plug-in should also help dissolve range anxiety. The Nissan Leaf, which will probably appear on our roads before the Volt, is an impressive "proper" car, but lacks the Volt's edge of cleverness in design and confidence. And, by the way, the Vauxhall and Nissan will be built in the UK, promising critical mass in alternative technologies.

Cost is a more difficult issue, but, as production volumes grow, and with a little help from government subsidies, the electric car should become a more and more realistic option for mainstream buyers.

Even so, you don't have so much fun driving an electric vehicle. They are pretty dull machines, more akin to, well, electrical appliances. Then again, getting from A to B as economically and reliably as possible has always been what most want, and the electric car will soon be able to deliver that for a mass market. Our streets will be quieter and our air cleaner too.

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