Chevy VoltThe 2011 Washington Auto Show featured a variety of exciting new energy-efficient cars including electric drive vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, both available to the public this year.

Winning the North American Car of the Year Award for 2011 this January is no small feat for the Chevy Volt, the first mass-market plug-in electric hybrid vehicle. Unlike some hybrids which use a combination of gas and electric power to propel the vehicle, the Volt runs entirely on electricity. After the first 40 miles on the road, a gas-fueled generator kicks in to recharge the lithium-ion battery which will, in turn, continue to power the electric motor.

Automobile manufacturers are anxious to see if the Volt will finally present the Toyota Prius with any true competition. A product specialist representing Chevrolet at the Auto Show said studies reveal that almost 80 percent of Americans have a daily commute within the Volt’s range of 40 miles or less, making the Volt a practical choice. On average, the Volt, which has a starting price of $40,000 before federal tax credits, will cost about $1.50 in electricity to travel 35-40 miles compared to the average sedan which costs around $6 (assuming $3/gallon of gas) to go the same distance. The Environmental Protection Agency rated the Volt to get the equivalent of 60 miles per gallon (or MPGe, where 34 kilowatt hours of energy = 1 gallon of fuel).

Nissan LeafUnlike a hybrid, the Leaf is powered entirely by an electric battery and contains no alternative energy source or back-up engine. Regenerative brakes (which are also found in the Volt) help replenish the battery while driving, and an installed 220-volt home charger will recharge the car within eight hours.

While the Nissan Leaf is certainly not the first all-electric car, it is the first all-electric vehicle targeted for the national consumer market with a realistic starting price of $34,000 before federal tax credits. The EPA has given the Leaf an energy-efficiency equivalent combined 99 MPGe and driving range of 73 miles, and according to the Energy Department, the Leaf will cost about $3 in electricity to run 100 miles.

Containing no tailpipe, the Leaf is 100 percent emissions free at the vehicle, though there are emissions at the power plants that generate the electricity, depending on the fuel used. Coal , which produces 45 percent of U.S. electricity, produces air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide. However, these emissions will decrease as more clean, renewable energy is brought online, and the net impact on climate change is still less than that of conventional vehicles.

Ford will release a fully electric Focus in the upcoming year, and Smart Fortwo already has a "Smart Electric" available for lease. In addition, Toyota is working on its own version of a plug-in hybrid, which was on display at the Auto Show.

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