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An Electric Vehicle Ride-Along

Senior consumer reporter and “Deal of Day” columnist Kelli B. Grant navigates the New York International Auto Show in search of the best, worst and coolest from automakers’ new lineups. Join her as she roams the exhibit floor Wednesday and Thursday before the show’s public opening on Friday, with dispatches here and on Twitter @kellibgrant

Electric is one of the buzzwords at this year’s show, but the vehicles are still a pretty rare sight on the street.

So we jumped at the chance to ride along at the auto show’s Electric Car pavilion. At a leisurely 5 miles per hour on the indoor, concrete track, there’s little difference in the handling or feel from a standard car. “It looks like a Prius and drives like a Prius,” says a Toyota spokesman of the new 2012 Prius plug-in. The $32,000 vehicle will be available in 15 states “any day now,” he says, and nationwide next year. All three were fairly comfortable, for the short trip, anyway.

Drivers may notice a big difference, however, in charge time and frequency. A Nissan spokeswoman says the 2012 Leaf, at $35,000, gets 100 miles between charges. That’s about double that of the $39,995 Chevy Volt. The Prius gets a paltry 11, which a spokesman says works fine for most drivers’ commutes — and keeps the cost per charge to about 50 cents. (The Volt and the Prius have the option of a gas engine for longer trips.)

All three cars also boast some interesting dashboard features. The Prius display shows drivers which steering wheel controls they’re fingering, so there’s no need to reach over to the dash itself or look down to say, control the radio. The Leaf has a digital tree that indicates smart driving: the more branches from good speed and control, the more energy you’re likely conserving, a spokeswoman says. The volt’s button-heavy display is almost overwhelming — a spokesman says it’s more like a giant touch-screen for easy use. Drivers can also pay for an in-dash DVD player, but not for road-trip entertainment. It will only operate when the Volt is parked.

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    • One correction. The Leaf does not have the option of a gas engine. It is pure electric.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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