Bill Tharp drives his Smart Fortwo ED(Photo: Smart)

Bill Tharp at the wheel of a Smart ForTwo ED.

One conversation with Bill Tharp is enough to offer a glimpse of the brave new world of electric vehicles - the good and the bad.

"For an inner-city urban vehicle I think it's phenomenal,' says Tharp, who runs a Toronto clean-tech asset-management firm and has been commuting in a smart EV since November.

But living with an EV means changing the way you look at cars.

"It's much closer to a relationship with a computer," Tharp says. "Sometimes you just have to reboot the car."

Thinking about whether we'd buy an EV is no longer a theoretical exercise. Smart, the urban-friendly arm of Mercedes Benz, has been quietly selling EV versions of its two-seat roller skate to closely monitored customers since last fall. Now, the Nissan Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV are heading into dealer showrooms this fall. It will be the first wave of mass-market EVs rolling out of dealerships and onto roadways at the hands of ordinary drivers.

Yet even EVs' staunchest supporters don't expect a stampede to the new technology. Initial sales will probably track the first years of hybrid autos.

Green car reviews:
Toyota Prius PHV
Nissan Leaf
Chevrolet Volt

Mitsubishi i-MiEV(Photo: Mitsubishi)

Mitsubishi's i-MiEV

"Nobody's ruling out the internal combustion engine for the next quarter century or so," says Al Cormier, departing president of the industry group, Electric Mobility Canada. "The drive towards electrics will depend a lot on the price of gasoline and on the infrastructure readiness that's available to make a trip."

Besides the Leaf, Volt and i-MiEV, Toyota will be offering a limited-range plug-in version of its Prius hybrid, and Ford will launch an EV Focus next year. Automakers say initial sales will probably be constrained by limited supplies.

Nissan has one plant in Japan with an annual production capacity of 50,000 but will have a U.S. plant popping out 150,000 and a European facility another 50,000 by 2013. First year Volt production is only 10,000, ramping up to 45,000 to 60,000 in the second year to supply all markets.

Nissan says it expects to release 600 Leafs - or is it Leaves? - to the Canadian market for the 2012 model year, plus a handful of 2011 Leafs to fill the gap until the '12s arrive.

Chevrolet Volt(Photo: Chevrolet)

Chevrolet's Volt is a hit - at least as far as pre-orders are concerned.

GM Canada spokesman Jason Easton says Volts will start arriving at Canadian dealerships later this summer or early fall.

"Pre-orders are going very well," he says. "Our launch [day] allocations are definitely full."

Cormier said discussions with manufacturers earlier this year produced an estimate of 2,000-3,000 Canadian sales by mid-2012.