Los Angeles—Besides the omnipresent house music, corporate theatrics and complimentary champagne at 10 a.m., car shows have another great personality trait:

Manufacturers let you drive their cars.

Volvo, among other manufacturers, brought its all-electric C30 to the Los Angeles Auto Show for test drives. To help consumers a bit, we've begun to assign grades to cars.

As a baseline, the Nissan Leaf (see earlier drive) gets an A-, while the Chevy Volt (test drive here) gets a high B according to our highly subjective test criteria. Both cars have pretty good acceleration for mid-sized cars and you don’t get the sense that you’re driving something that has been compromised to get it to run on batteries. The Nissan gets points for not having an on-board gas engine and costing around $8,000 less. Nonetheless, the Volt had more interior room and climbed hills well: we tested the Leaf on a pancake-flat surface. In different test conditions, the grades could easily be flipped.

The Mitsubishi MiEV got a B to B- in a drive in Japan. Although it had a smaller battery than the Nissan Leaf (18 versus 24 kilowatt hours) you could feel the weight of it a bit more in the base of the car. Go figure.

Unlike those three cars, the Volvo C30 electric is more of a prototype. The company will deliver 50 of them for the Department of Energy of Sweden next year and then may expand production to around 200.

Volvo, however, has a plug-in diesel hybrid coming to Europe in late 2012 that will get around 75 miles per gallon and a plug-in gas hybrid coming to the States around the same time. The size of the battery in the plug-ins will be 12 kilowatt-hours. The all-electric has a 24-kilowatt-hour battery, which drives the cost up. While Ener1 makes the battery for the all-electric, another manufacturer makes the batteries for the plug-ins.

The diesel plug-in hybrid will emit a low 49 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, according to Volvo’s Lennert Stegland, who heads up the company’s alternative car unit. Volvo will skip Prius-like hybrids and go straight to all-electrics and plug-ins, he added. Adding 100 kilos of batteries can cut fuel economy by 3 percent, which makes the carbon trade-off tricky for regular hybrids.

The company also stays true to its roots by not exaggerating the all-electric's performance. It will go 100 miles on a charge, but realistically, it will go 80 miles if drivers use the air conditioner or punch the accelerator.

 

“This car is meant for city driving,” he said. “It can be used for 80 to 90 percent of your commuting needs.”

So how does it drive? The car is a notch above the Leaf, even though both have a 24-kilowatt-hour battery. It accelerates well, brakes firmly and navigates things like orange plastic cones without excessive wobbling. The smooth handling comes in part because of the improved weight distribution Volvo has managed to achieve: approximately 56 percent of the weight sits in the front and 44 percent is in the back. The car also has a drag coefficient of 0.28, Stegland said.

But what pushes it ahead of the Leaf is the fact that it feels like a Volvo. The Leaf feels like an economy car. In the Volvo, you feel like you're hermetically sealed away from the outside world. Although electric cars are quiet, the electric C30 was quieter than most. When you’re behind the wheel, you can sense that you are driving a better-quality car.

Unfortunately, the Volvo gets knocked back because consumers may not see this for a while. So in the end, an A-.