It is an appealing vision: a city of electric vehicles, whispering down the streets, each quieter than a Cuisinart set on puree. No tailpipes. No smog. No oil from foreign shores.

At the mall, each parking spot comes with a coin-operated power meter. Downtown, in zones where internal combustion engines are frowned upon, electric cars park for free. Driving to New England? No problem. Service stations swap a battery pack in the time it takes to fill a gas tank.

This has been the dream of electric car enthusiasts for almost two decades. But like the vehicles themselves, the evolution of the electric car has been pokey and limited by the mind-bending difficulty of building a better battery.

Yet events have conspired to push electric cars forward. Southern California, in an attempt to scrub its yellow air, has called for tens of thousands of electric cars over the next decade. Other dirty cities may emulate the Los Angeles experiment.

Moreover, the automobile industry and the Energy Department are pressing for a major new initiative to develop a commercial battery for electric cars, a goal that has so far eluded engineers.

Over the last decade, the electric vehicle itself has improved. While most electric cars look like clunkers, General Motors earlier this year proved that electric need not mean spastic when it unveiled a protoype E-car with the unfortunate name "Impact," a sporty teardrop-shaped two-seater that goes from 0 to 60 mph in eight seconds and has a range of 120 miles.

"They're not golf carts anymore," said Paul Brown, executive director of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas and a former Energy Department official who oversaw electric car research. "There has been a revival of interest in what electric cars can do."

"I think it's real. I think we're going down the road to electric vehicles," said Larry O'Connell of the Electric Power Research Institute's (EPRI) Electric Transportation Program. EPRI is the research wing of the electric utility industry, which loves the idea of electric cars, since most of them would be charged at night, when utilities are off-peak and eager to sell energy.

There is a long way to go, however, before parking lots are wired for E-cars. Today only a few thousand electric vehicles are on the road. In present form, electric vehicles are about as sexy as the family wagon. Most now in use are stripped-down vans or retooled gliders. (They are called gliders because the body and chassis of the auto glide off the assembly line without an engine, and then are fitted with batteries, electric motors and various controllers.) The Urban Van's Promise

Big and bulky, the current generation of electric vehicles is best represented by the workhorse G-van, which uses a General Motors van body and is fitted out by EPRI and its partner VEHMA International.

Designed to be used as an urban delivery vehicle, the G-van has a range in stop-and-go city traffic of 40 to 60 miles between charges. Flat-out, the van could do 52 mph. Half-loaded, it accelerates from 0 to 30 mph in 13 seconds. Its price is $50,000, without air conditioning, but O'Connell said the cost would be more competitive if orders increased. EPRI currently has orders for about 100 vans, mostly from utility companies.

The idea, according to O'Connell, was to demonstrate quickly that electric vehicles work. The easiest lace to start was with urban vans, which make lots of stops but don't travel many miles. The city is also the last place anyone wants internal combustion engines.

"We felt it was important to get electric vehicles on the road," O'Connell said. "It's one thing to show pictures and do the analysis; it's another to drive one. The auto and utility industries and the politicians have to be convinced they're real."

E-car enthusiasts are excited by the recent development of hybrid cars, which run on electricity but also contain small gasoline-powered generators or motors. A company called Unique Mobility in Englewood, Colo., for example, plans to supply Southern California with a van that runs mostly on electric batteries, but contains a small generator that recharges the batteries as the van is driven. On batteries alone, the van could go 35 to 50 miles. But with the generator aboard and a couple of gallons of gasoline, the range could extend to 100 miles.

Still, even the biggest boosters admit that electric cars will never take off until they are able to drive farther and faster.

"The biggest problem is the battery. Period," said James MacKenzie of the World Resources Institute in Washington, who has been tracking the development of electric cars.

"Since 1973, I've always read that in three to five years, we'll have a better battery," said John Gould, president of Unique Mobility. "But when they say three to five years now, I almost believe them." Power Sources and Costs

The battery of choice today is a jazzed-up lead-acid cell, which uses the same lead electrodes and acid solution as an ordinary car battery but in a different configuration. These batteries offer limited range and cost between $75 and $250 each. Depending on range and power, a minivan might need between 16 and 30 batteries. The batteries will not last the life of the vehicle, but must be replaced after a few years of driving.

Other batteries are being developed, with more exotic metals and electrolytes, such as nickel-iron, lithium sulfide and sodium-sulfur. These are expected to increase range to about 150 miles in this decade, but will cost more than the batteries now in use.

What good is all this? It is true that electric cars themselves are clean and non-polluting. But the energy must come from somewhere, and in the United States, it more than likely comes from a coal-fired electricity plant, which produces sulfur dioxide and other gases that contribute to smog, acid rain and possible global warming.

However, an analysis of the environmental effects of electric cars versus gasoline-powered vehicles shows that electric vehicles are, in many cases, more benign. Mark DeLuchi of Princeton University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies found that electric cars produce much smaller quantities of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, even after emissions at the power plant are taken into account. And electric cars and the power plants would produce less ozone -- the main ingredient in smog -- than gasoline engines.

The figures for other emissions are less clear. Electric cars would produce more sulfur gases, largely because many power plants burn coal. But DeLuchi found that overall, the use of electric vehicles would not greatly increase sulfur emissions, which contribute to acid rain. As for "greenhouse" gases such as carbon dioxide, which contribute to climatic warming, electric cars would produce about 25 percent less per mile than their internal combustion counterparts.

"Electric cars do pretty good," DeLuchi said. "Not perfect, but pretty good."