“There are three kinds of liars: liars, damn liars and battery makers,” an engineer once told me.
He was bitter about an electric-vehicle program that had been canceled years earlier, but anyone who has used a battery-powered device can understand his anger.
Whether it is an iPod, cell phone or laptop computer, the charge just never seems to last as long as the manufacturer says it will.
Battery makers don't really lie, of course. Their predictions are just based on ideal conditions. And the real world seldom is ideal.
In the case of electric vehicles, driver behavior, temperature, accessory use, terrain and battery age all have an impact on range.
I experienced this recently at a test drive sponsored by the organizers of the North American Car of the Year award, where I serve as a judge.
The battery-powered Nissan Leaf touts a 100-mile (161-km) range. The instantaneous torque of the Leaf's electric motor makes it surprisingly fun to drive, but after briefly hammering it on some back roads, my range plummeted by more than 20 miles (32 km).
A few minutes of slower driving allowed me to recover some — but not all — of my alleged range.
My daily commute totals about 50 miles (80 km). With ideal conditions, that would be easy to do with a Leaf. But given Michigan's cold winters, my sometimes heavy foot and the inevitable side trips of everyday living, I fear it would add another level of stress to a drive already filled with angst.
The fact it takes eight hours to fully charge a Leaf with a 240V outlet and 20 hours with standard 120V service does not help.
Even so, the Leaf's clever design, lively performance and tax incentives that may bring the base price down to $25,000 should have buyers beating down dealership doors for a good two years.
But demand likely will plunge after that. It's hard to believe there will be enough buyers in the U.S. to sustain tens of thousands of sales annually for a car with such limited utility.
Subduing range anxiety is what the Chevrolet Volt's controversial powertrain is all about. Also available at the NACOTY event, it too is entertaining to drive.
General Motors says the Volt is an electric vehicle with a range-extending gasoline-powered generator.
Much to the chagrin of some journalists and pundits, we recently learned the Volt more accurately is described as a plug-in serial-hybrid EV that acts like a parallel hybrid in some driving modes.
That's tough to sell in sound bytes, but back-to-back test drives with the Leaf show the Volt powertrain, while ideologically tarnished in the minds of some purists, is far more practical.
When the Volt's battery charge is exhausted after about 40 miles (64 km), the car seamlessly transitions to a generator-powered mode. Then you can drive as long as you want without fear of being stranded.
The Volt's sticker is about $8,000 more than the Leaf. But the freedom from fear is priceless. It is an electric car you can drive to grandma's house — even if she lives in another state.
That means the Volt has a better shot than the Leaf at being more than just a fad.
Compromise isn't pretty, but sometimes it's the only way to get something done.