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

During the past two years, many of the electric and plug-in hybrid cars that have been endlessly hyped at car shows and in glossy green image advertising finally hit the streets. Truth be told, they've so far met with a muted reception. The public is wary, because of range anxiety (fear of running out of charge) and initial high prices, but sales volumes are slowly building--and prices are projected to come down dramatically.

Here's a close-up look at five green cars now in showrooms. They range from sensible family transportation to exotic luxury chariots. I've driven them all, and don't worry--you can still have fun behind the wheel. Not one of these cars is a slow-moving slug, and some are downright rocket ships.

What is the environmental advantage of electric cars when they're charged from America's diverse grid, which is powered by everything from dirty coal plants to solar arrays and wind farms? Eladio Knipping, a senior technical manager for the environment at the Electric Power Research Institute, came up with a rough estimate that electric vehicles (EVs) are 30 percent to 40 percent cleaner overall than conventional cars in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions. (Plug-in hybrids have to be judged separately, because although they can cruise on battery power alone, they also have gas engines that extend their range.)

Your battery car, then, will have about the same climate impact as a hybrid. But over time the equation will increasingly favor the EV. Charles Griffith, the Clean Car Campaign director at Michigan's Ecology Center, told me, "The basic point is that it's not worse to have electric vehicles on a grid that is primarily coal-based. As we put more renewables into the grid, the profile for EVs will only get better over time. We're moving in the right direction." The bottom line is that all five of these cars will electrify your ride and significantly reduce your carbon footprint.

Chevrolet Volt: Mistaken Identity

On a fast drive from LAX to Santa Monica, I got a sense of what's great about the Chevrolet Volt--it's one of the quietest cars I've ever driven, with a seamless transition when the four-cylinder gas engine starts up, and ample highway power on tap. What's more, I could ask for directions en route, and an operator seamlessly delivered them to my car via the connected OnStar system.

The Volt (which will be complemented by a luxury Cadillac version called the ELR in 2014) is priced at $39,145 (before a $7,500 federal tax credit) and is unlike any other green car on the road. Its gas engine is there mostly to act as a generator and produce electricity. Although the people who have bought Volts are passionate about them, the car is unlikely to be a moneymaker for GM (its build cost is only a little less than its selling price). Still, the Volt is enormously important to the company's image as a reborn technology innovator.

Angus MacKenzie, editor-at-large of Motor Trend (just one of three auto publications that made the Volt the 2010 Car of the Year), told me that this ambitious project would "never have gotten past the bean counters in the old days," and that's certainly true. General Motors' favorite phrase for this clean-sheet-of-paper car is "range-extender electric vehicle" because it doesn't much like "plug-in hybrid." But the company finally admitted that under certain conditions the gas engine does drive the wheels, so plug-in hybrid is as good a description as any. The Volt can travel 25 to 50 miles on just electricity, but with the gas engine running, its range jumps to 300 miles.

The handsomely styled Volt, which creates zero emissions most of the time, is an EV for people with range anxiety--those who worry about where their next charge is coming from. On the debit side of the ledger, it's pricey, seats only four, and needs to be plugged in. In its favor, the car is very sophisticated and offers a smart approach to electrifying the automobile that other automakers would do well to emulate.

Another advantage over some other electrics: Because the Volt's battery pack is relatively small (16 kilowatt-hours), you can charge it easily from regular 110 house current without having to install a $2,000 home charger.

Nissan Leaf: Plugging Ahead

The Leaf, a battery electric with an official EPA range of 73 miles (less in cold weather) and worldwide appeal, is a big bet for Nissan that so far hasn't met expectations. The company had hoped to sell 20,000 in the United States in 2012; instead, by the end of year it had sold fewer than 10,000. The Leaf is eligible for the same federal and state subsidies as the Volt. And a somewhat stripped-down model benefits from a $6,000 price cut (to $28,800 before any rebates) for the 2013 model year, plus a slight increase in range and other new options.

Giving battery cars a federal "miles per gallon" rating is a bit of a challenge--they don't actually have gas tanks--but the Leaf has been officially rated at 99 mpg (combined) by the EPA. The car is also doing its best to interact with a smarter grid: With their cell phones, owners can pre-heat or pre-cool the car, and they can dial in a charge start time, too (to take advantage of lower late-night electricity rates).

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

Here's an affordable plug-in hybrid with curb appeal. Toyota's enhanced Prius has beefed-up battery capacity, a plug, and 13 miles of all-electric cruising. I tried out the car, and it fit my lifestyle perfectly. Because I work at home, my modest daily mileage was within the car's range. I rarely used its gas engine, and so achieved an on-paper 100 mpg or better as I cruised at up to 60 mph. As with most plug-in hybrids, this Prius's performance depends heavily on how you drive it--this car loses most of its advantages on long highway commutes.

Toyota is funny about plug-in hybrids, building them despite the misgivings expressed by some of its own executives. The company's former chief spokesperson, Irv Miller, told me, "The dog doesn't hunt. We may be trying to change the world for a very small part of the market." But despite that, the car hit the showrooms in early 2012 and is selling fairly well--Americans bought more than 12,000 of them last year. It was somewhat under the radar, but it's selling better than the Nissan Leaf.

The great thing about this battery-enhanced car is that when you run out of electricity it simply reverts to being a standard Prius, which is not a bad thing. But a standard Prius costs $21,000, so is the improved EV cruising range worth approximately $14,000? It would certainly take a lot of short hops to pay down the price premium, but the plug-in hybrid enjoys greener-than-thou bragging rights.

Detroit managed only one significant electrified introduction this year, the Cadillac ELR, and even that was promoted more as a luxury vehicle than a chariot for the eco-minded. But it was easy to see how automakers have effectively absorbed the green lessons. Presenting such rip-roaring performance cars as the Corvette Stingray and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, automakers stressed fuel economy (accomplished through cylinder deactivation, light-weighting, and fuel-saving transmission adjustments). That 470-horsepower Jeep even has an "eco" button.

The entire industry is facing a 2025 deadline to deliver fleet averages of 54.5 mpg in compliance with the federal government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules, and that means even the strong-selling gas guzzlers have to be reformed. In 2013 few automakers can ignore the need to go green, because that's clearly where the market is headed amid federal regulation and international concern about climate change. 

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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