Plugging Into the Electric Vehicle Revolution

Plugging Into the Electric Vehicle Revolution

Cars may prove to be one solution to our climate change problem.

By Jim Motavalli
Published: 02/22/2013

I've logged a fair amount of seat time in Nissan Leafs. When I guided one through New York's Central Park recently, I was impressed with its road manners over potholes, its sharp handling, and its rapid forward progress.

But driving the Leaf is the easy part: The car relies on its 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack for go power, which means you'll probably want to install a 240-volt home charger (which requires a roughly eight-hour recharge time). Some early Leaf owners got free chargers through the federally supported EV Project, but more recent recruits are likely to be on their own.

Also available for the Leaf are 480-volt fast chargers, which can "fill up" a battery car in half an hour. The Society of Automotive Engineers has finally approved a so-called "combo plug" that incorporates both a new U.S. Level III fast-charging standard and regular 240-volt Level II charging. Still, even 30 minutes is a long time to wait in front of a supermarket. But as former Nissan spokesman Mark Perry told me, instead of filling up all the way, consumers might "pull in, grab a latte from the machine, take care of nature, and come back to a car that has now added 25 miles of range."

Early Leafs and their battery packs were made in Japan, but the production of both is now under way in Tennessee.

Tesla Model S: The Car Everyone Wants

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is nothing if not brash, and he's in everyone's face about wanting the Model S to be not just the best electric car in the world but the best car--period. The funny thing is that he's darned near achieved that goal.

The Model S, a gorgeous sedan with up to seven-passenger seating and state-of-the-art electronics, has an EPA rating of 265 miles in its top-of-the-line version, which features an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack. Tesla's goal was to bring in the Model S at roughly half the cost of its $109,000 two-seat Roadster, and it did that--in a way. The car starts off at $52,400 with a 40-kilowatt-hour battery pack (after the federal rebate), but zooms up to $87,400 (again, after the rebate) for the 85-kilowatt-hour high-performance version.

The Tesla Model S won 2012 Best of the Year awards from Motor Trend, Automobile Magazine, and many others, and as production in a California factory has ramped up, would-be owners reserved 13,000 cars worldwide. The Tesla really is as good as the experts say it is--acceleration is seamless and creamy, interior accommodations on the cutting edge (including a celebrated 17-inch iPad-like touchscreen), and an "I've arrived" presence second to none. After a one-hour test-drive in New Jersey, I didn't want to give it back.

The key question will be whether Tesla can sustain its momentum beyond the early adopters in line to buy it now. At presstime, it was unclear how many cars Tesla has actually produced and delivered. The goal was to have 400 a week rolling out the doors by the end of 2012. If the company can ramp up production and sustain the excitement among deep-pocketed car buyers, it's likely to be the first unqualified electric hit.

Fisker Karma: Stellar Looks, Underdeveloped Performance

There was considerable momentum behind the Fisker Karma when it finally rolled off a Finnish assembly line in 2011. The brainchild of Henrik Fisker, one of the world's most celebrated auto stylists (BMW, Ford, and Aston Martin, among others), the Karma plug-in hybrid was seen as a Volt on steroids.

Scheduled for a 2009 release, the car didn't actually appear until two years later, and it received a mixed reception: Everyone loved the looks, but many other aspects earned poor marks. Consumer Reports' Jake Fisher said, "Although we found its ride, handling, and braking performance sound, and it has first-class interior materials, the Karma's problems outweighed the good." The consensus is that the car was rushed to market, and is suffering from developmental shortcuts. A bottom line of $107,850 didn't help.  

I was the first to report that the Karma would weigh more than 5,000 pounds, which made it hard to achieve stellar performance targets. (It's supposed to reach 60 mph in 5.9 seconds--in sport mode--and zoom on up to a top speed of 125 mph.)

The Karma has great green credentials, including 50 miles of battery-only range and very low 83-gram-per-kilometer carbon emissions. Some 403 horsepower (300 kilowatts) is on tap from two electric motors, which are fed by the 260-horsepower turbocharged generator.

What will happen with Fisker is anybody's guess. The company was to have expanded its product line with a much cheaper ($46,500) family car code-named Nina, but the federal loan supporting that work was suspended. There were other woes causing at least a temporary production shutdown, including the bankruptcy of the company's battery supplier, A123, a disastrous dock fire during Hurricane Sandy, and uncertain demand in the wake of bad publicity.

It's a sign of the times that at the 2013 North American International Auto Show, industry veteran and legend Bob Lutz (former GM vice chairman and star of Revenge of the Electric Car) announced plans to build the VL Automotive Destino, a Fisker with its green drive-train removed and a hot Corvette motor in its place.

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid

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Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli contributes to the New York Times, Autoweek, Car Talk, Mother Nature Network, and others, and is the author of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry (Rodale).

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

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