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Electric car guinea pigs say goodbye to gas stations

I honestly don't know how I convinced my wife to join me in becoming electric car guinea pigs.

After all, she is the one who will commute with it everyday, grumble that it can only travel 120 kilometres or so before needing a recharge, and pick up the kids from school in it – with a heater that better work well in the winter, I was often warned.

With no backup engine to rely on, she'll likely be the one stranded by our new 2012 Nissan Leaf, if she pushes its range too far. After all, she has tanned by the low fuel light in her trusty but aging 2003 Pontiac Vibe.

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She sees little value in being among the first drivers to own the first mainstream electric vehicle in Canada in modern times. Or that plug-in vehicles such as this one appear to be the four-wheeled bridges that will likely lead us to an eventual promised land of zero emissions sustainable mobility. Or that the Leaf is just the first in a growing wave of new plug-in vehicles that promise to turn streets around the world into quieter and easier-breathing electric avenues.

Luckily for this rather expensive experiment, she liked the Leaf in blue. And she appreciates that it's quieter than a $450,000 Rolls-Royce, and that she won't have to stand in the frigid cold every week filling it up. Plus she's always hunting for a deal, and the Ontario government provides a hefty mail-in rebate on plug-in vehicles, to the tune of $8,500 for the Leaf.

At least, we hope it does. We picked up our car Dec. 30, and as of mid-January, still no cheque. What, you thought that EV rebate was removed at point of sale? So did we, initially, but we've come to learn otherwise.

To be clear, this was not a car sold to us at any kind of special media rate, or a borrowed long-term vehicle from Nissan, or a test helped along financially by Nissan Canada in any way whatsoever. Outside of the (anticipated) government rebate, it's one we paid full price for on our own, with no haggling room at all afforded us from our local dealer in Toronto's west end.

Which is painful when you see $12,000 discounts on gasoline-chugging full-size pickup trucks being thrown around at the same dealership.

The rebate is available instantly when you're leasing or financing through Nissan Canada Financial, at 5.9 or 6.9 per cent, respectively (these figures change regularly). From there, NCF will directly discount the provincial rebate, and then request the money back from the government, acting as an agent on your behalf. But it also means that you'll pay about double the rate of interest of what you'd pay on a reasonable line of credit from your bank, with less flexible terms.

And on a vehicle worth $49,319, after options, taxes and a hefty $1,890 freight charge, this extra interest would have cost us a lot.

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So it was time to write a big cheque, the biggest in my life, in fact, and I'm living in our second purchased house. Turns out that dealers are not quite so inclined to be as helpful in rebating this money directly, or at least ours wasn't. It's up to them whether to apply the $8,500 government discount right off the purchase price, and then chase the provincial government for it, or charge you full pop, and let you deal with the rebate process.

Our dealer helpfully scanned all our documents to make them easier to e-mail, but did not want to be left holding the bag if the government reduced or eliminated the rebate.

We wouldn't have known any of this had we not gone through the same buying process as any other consumer in the market for a Leaf. Having bought a new car before, it's apparent that this is a very different process. And a very different ownership experience.

Which is why I'll be writing a regular series here at about living with an electric car, every day, all year round.

My wife and I will both drive and recharge it at home regularly, and hopefully at public stations in the not-too-distant future. I'll detail the hoops involved to install an Eaton EV charger into our garage, how long it takes to receive government rebate funds (hopefully), and how the distance we can travel is affected by winter cold, summer heat, highways, hills or local blackouts – whether caused by our car or not.

Our EV life experiment, however, won't be exactly the same as that of a typical consumer. Thanks to the installation of a separate meter by Toronto Hydro strictly for the charger in the garage, we'll be able to track exactly how much electricity the Leaf is using, and how much this electricity costs, instead of just trying to guesstimate how different our bills are before and after Leaf.

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Unfortunately, it also means we'll soon receive two separate bills from Toronto Hydro: one for our home electricity, another for our Leaf's fuel bill. And since we will be paying the exact same time-of-use rates we're paying for home juice, there's a financial (and environmental) incentive to restrict charging to off-peak times.

We realize it will affect family life, even though we'll still have access to another vehicle. We can't just leave it parked in our driveway every night any more. We likely won't be able to drive it to the cottage, though I'm tempted to try, once the nicer weather hits and I hone my electric hyper-miling skills.

We won't be able to fit all the grandparents, friends and Christmas gifts we could in a similarly priced new minivan or SUV. And though we're happy about the expected 80 per cent reduction in our commuting fuel bills, we certainly didn't buy it for the fuel savings, as our Vibe was plenty fuel-efficient already.

So why did we do it? It's a question we're asked all the time. It came down to my desire to really examine the key differences between electric vehicles and regular cars, many of which are tough if not impossible to report on comprehensively in a single road test. While borrowing an EV for a few days and charging it in a standard wall outlet may provide some worthwhile electric car observations, it is far different from how most owners will actually experience these cars.

So with 2012 promising to be a key year for plug-in vehicles in Canada, this series will not be an ideologically led exercise in either advocating for or railing against EVs, but will provide a balanced, in-depth look at the positives and negatives of living with a pure electric car.

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