Electric and hybrid cars

It is time, at last, to look for a new car. For the first time in a decade, I started looking into what the current interesting automotive options are. I have many friends who own Priuses, and naturally an energy-efficient machine appeals to me. But I’ve discovered that in 2013 there is a much wider range of options beyond Toyota.

Electric cars! No longer a sci-fi fantasy or an option reserved for the super-rich, electric cars are out there on the roads today. A great starting point for learning more about the options, considerations, map of charging stations, etc., is pluginamerica.org. With that under my belt, I decided to go for some test drives.

My first stop was at the Nissan Dealership. The all-electric Leaf is comfortingly familiar (I already drive a Nissan) and really, I must say, quite charming. The visibility out the back feels a little more constrained than in my current Sentra, but this seems (puzzlingly) to be a common design feature of newer car models. Our test drive was in the top-trimline Leaf SL, featuring leather seats, with front AND rear seat heaters (!), a “Photovoltaic Solar-Panel Rear Spoiler” (a roof-mounted solar panel that provides power for your car accessories!), and the CARWINGS® phone app to let you remotely check the battery status, schedule charging, turn on the AC before you go out to the car, and other amazing stuff.

Driving the Leaf was a delight. Electric motors have more torque at lower speeds, and the vehicle’s acceleration from a stoplight was a real pleasure. (Of course, I am comparing it to my manual transmission ’99 Nissan Sentra experience.) I didn’t get to test highway-speed passing (which might not be as powerful since the electric motor has much less torque at high speeds) because the freeway was clogged with Los Angeles weekend traffic.

The dashboard interface was surprisingly simple. Left: engine temperature; right: charge and estimated range; top: are you regenerating power (braking) or consuming it (accelerating)?

The mini-dash at the top shows speed, time, and temperature, plus a cryptic icon meter on the left. This turns out to be your visual feedback about how “eco-friendly” your driving is. When you minimize braking and accelerating, a little “tree” progressively grows there, starting from a little bare trunk and then adding branches. If you finish growing one tree, it is saved on the lower right (1up!) and you start growing the next one. Apparently the number of trees you grow is stored for the lifetime of the vehicle. It is probably accessible with the CARWINGS app and coming to a social media site near you.

I was puzzled by the tree metaphor. When I asked about it, the salesperson said, “Each tree represents a tree that you saved by driving a Leaf.” I asked, “But wouldn’t it make more sense to use barrels of oil or something? Cars don’t run on trees.” Him: “No, it’s because of CO2 emissions, you know?” Because CO2 kills trees? What?

I really enjoyed the driving experience. The only thing I didn’t like was that I couldn’t seem to adjust the rear-view mirror. The salesperson advised me to adjust the height of my *seat* to make the rear-view mirror show the right field. Weird.

Here are the Leaf’s vital statistics:

Range: 75 miles
Top speed: 90 mph
Price (lowest trim): $28,800 (minus $7500 federal tax rebate) or
$199/month + $2000 down for a 3-year lease

Next I visited the Chevy dealership to try out a Volt. The Volt is not an electric car. It is a plug-in hybrid, meaning it has a small electric battery that it can run on for a while, plus a gas engine that kicks in when you run out of battery charge or you need extra acceleration or you get over 70 mph. As such, it seems to be a better practical solution than the Leaf: you get increased reliability, increased performance, increased range, but the car still burns (some) gas, and you’ll pay another $10k for it.

The Volt also felt very nice to drive, but I didn’t like it as much as the Leaf. Probably because they needed to fit a gas engine and a battery into a standard car package, they abandoned the center rear seat and instead use that space to store the battery under/in the car. That seemed fine to me. However the dashboard is a confusing barrage display with odd choices about how much real estate is given to different items.

In front of the steering wheel is something that looks like this:

Left is charge/range; middle is speed and a bunch of cluttery icons; right is the mysterious green sphere. This sphere is the equivalent of the Leaf’s growing trees, except you don’t accumulate anything. Instead you are instructed to use it as a feedback device. If the green sphere floats up, you are accelerating. If it goes down, you are braking. Your mission is to keep it in the middle, i.e., do nothing. Since I already know when I’m accelerating or braking, as I’m the one doing it, it was hard to see how this adds anything useful.

Some other green sphere that I never decoded is reproduced in the default view on the big navigation screen in the center console:

Here are the Volt’s vital statistics:

Pure electric range: 37 miles
Top speed: 100 mph
Price (lowest trim): $39,000 (minus $7500 federal tax rebate) or
$289/month + $2000 down for a 3-year lease

In summary, I liked the Leaf a lot more, but the Volt would be a more practical solution. A 75-mile range, after which you must spend 6-12 hours recharging your car (although apparently with the right charger you can get to 80% capacity in 30 minutes), would be very constraining as the only car in a household (great as a second car, though!). Nissan is offering some other nice incentives to woo the nervous customer, including free roadside assistance and several days of free (regular) car rentals for those times that the Leaf won’t suffice (roadtrips?). I also don’t know enough about how available the charging stations scattered around the city are. (On the up side, charging is free paid for by the government.)

But that’s not all! There’s more research to be done. I still want to try out the Prius as well as the new plug-in Prius, and may also sample the Honda Fit EV, the Ford Focus EV, and the Honda Civic hybrid.