Going Green at the 2017 WAJ Media Days

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Every spring for the last 25 years, the Western Automotive Journalists (WAJ) has brought together its journalist members and manufacturers (and their cars) at a scenic location with a racetrack. The goal is to evaluate a variety of cars on the road and the racetrack, network, have fun, and get a good story, too.

As I have for almost every year since the first event back in 1993, I attended with anticipation. And, as I have for at least the last dozen years, I roomed at the hotel with my buddies Jon and Carey. However, as I’m increasing my focus on green vehicles, I tried to concentrate my energy on environmentally responsible options.

I Drove my All-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV to the Event

For the first time ever, I drove my own car to the event. My 105-mile trip to Monterey, California was in my own Chevrolet Bolt EV. With my two pals in tow, what could be more environmentally sensitive than to carpool in an all-electric vehicle? It kept one old gas car and one motorcycle off the highway entirely.

The Bolt EV is a roomy compact hatchback, and it fit us and our gear without a problem when I folded down one of the rear seats.

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Always interested in checking the accuracy of the car’s range, I took before and after photos of my instrument panel.

In my driveway, it looked like this, with 251 miles of estimated range (about the best it’s ever looked, by the way):

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When we pulled into the hotel, it looked like this:

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The 105-mile trip lowered my estimated range by 113 miles–pretty nice for an all-freeway trip at 65-70 miles per hour. And, of course, the ride was smooth and quiet all the way. We had similar mileage on the return trip.

PG&E’s New Plugin Electric Hybrid Charging Trucks

138 miles should allow a return trip without a recharge, but that would be cutting it close. And, I planned to drive out to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and back, too. So, I was very fortunate to get to use PG&E’s new portable charging truck to top off my battery the night I arrived.

These amazing new trucks are completely self contained and can charge multiple vehicles at a time. The one I used was the smaller one, which required setting up charging stations, but the larger, 19,000-pound model we used at the event locations had direct cables from the truck to the vehicle, and included quick-charge capacity. The trucks, which themselves are Diesel/electric hybrids, will save a lot of energy as they’re used for their normal duties (see below), and with their onboard generator, can power up vehicles that need it. Here’s the smaller truck I used at the Monterey Tides hotel:

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Note the charging bollard standing there. The orange item is a grounding sheet that Jim Larson of PG&E installed underneath it.

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Here’s the control panel.

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At the racetrack, the trucks charged multiple cars at a time. Here the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan (the only one on the market!) and a Chevrolet Bolt EV get charged up.

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Here are more details from PG&E’s press release about these fantastic new trucks:

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and Efficient Drivetrains Incorporated (EDI) will showcase the utility industry’s first plug-in electric hybrid (PHEV) drivetrain Class 5 work bucket truck featuring 120kW exportable power that can be used to shorten or eliminate planned and unplanned outages.

PG&E partnered with EDI and Dixon-based Altec Industries, to develop this vehicle, which was designed, built and tested in the heart of California at EDI’s plant in Dixon. The vehicle features up to 50 miles all-electric range before switching to hybrid mode and 120kW exportable power, capable of powering 80% of the transformers in PG&E’s service area. The truck also features Altec’s electric worksite management system, which allows all onboard equipment including the boom, climate control and tools to be operated off of battery power, eliminating the need to idle the engines of the trucks while at job sites. These vehicles will reduce emissions by up to 80% when compared to conventional fuel vehicles.  PG&E estimates that each EDI truck will save the utility over 850 gallons of fuel per year. PG&E has deployed this technology in class 3, 5 and 6 platforms and currently operates 12 of the units.

I Drove Two Hydrogen-powered EVs Back to Back

Eager to start out green, I drove the two hydrogen cars right away–the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. The third hydrogen vehicle on the market, Hyundai’s Tucson, wasn’t there, but these two midsize sedans represent the bulk of today’s very small segment, and are quite similar. Both feature weird styling, hundreds of miles of range, a reasonable lease price, and an undramatic driving experience. They feel like Toyota and Honda versions of the same car.

I drove the Mirai first. I had spent an hour with this vehicle before, driving a limited course in residential San Francisco. I was eager to get it out onto the highway and let it loose a little. The Mirai was introduced in 2014, while the Clarity goes back to 2008. However, this second-generation Clarity came out just a few months ago.

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The Mirai wears exaggerated versions of Toyota’s current styling elements. The front scoops help direct lots of cool air to the components under the hood that convert hydrogen to energy (and water) and the electric motor. The tail of the car is somewhat sad looking. However, the interior, featuring the sweeping panels seen also on the Camry and Prius, feels more conventional.

The Mirai runs quietly, but unlike battery-powered EVs, lacks the wealth of torque you’d expect, so performance is leisurely. But the main story here, as in the Clarity, is that the technology is futuristic but the driving experience is ordinary. Maybe that’s a good thing.

The new second-generation Clarity, my second ride of the day, is also an odd-looking beast.

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The giant scoops up front, sliced semi-skirted rear wheels, and overstyled tail continue the hydrogen car strangeness. But–this car does look like a Honda, so maybe the assumption is that both of these cars reflect “the future” of their respective brands, like vehicles in a movie set in 2035.

As in the Mirai, the interior is less strange than the exterior. My main memory is of artificial plastic wood trim and alcantara on the dash and soft seating. Nothing else really stood out.

Both test cars had more than 200 miles of range on the odometer when I drove them. Range isn’t as much as an issue with hydrogen cars, since you can fill them up and drive like a gas car, and they can have 300 or more miles of range on a five-minute fill-up. The issue is finding a place to do it. There are very few hydrogen stations in California right now. If the infrastructure isn’t built out, it will likely remain a very marginal technology.

You can help promote  this new technology by leasing one these cars. Toyota’s deal is $349 a month with three years worth of free fuel. You also can buy the car for $57,500. The Clarity leases for $369 a month; there’s no purchase option. They also have a free fuel offer.

There are many differences between these two cars, and I’d like to cover them in a separate article. The bottom line is, you can drive either for essentially $350 a month total–and be part of the future.

Chrysler Pacifica is the Only Hybrid Minivan you can Buy

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I got a chance to spend 20 minutes or so driving and riding in the new Pacific hybrid minivan. While I’ve tested the regular model recently (full story soon for my newspapers and websites), this one provides more than 30 miles of pure EV driving. As a new model, it’s really nice to drive in any case, but with electric power, it’s much more efficient–and, of course, quieter. It climbed the hills of the Laureles Grade test run without getting breathless, although the engine did have to chime in to get it done. I’m looking forward to a week-long test soon, and that story will appear here in stevegoesgreen.com.

Zero Motorcycles – Green on Two Wheels

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I am not a motorcycle rider, but I spent time talking with three of the friendly and knowledgeable people from Zero Motorcycles, purveyors of electric two-wheeled transportation. I also heard a presentation from the company’s new CEO.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to test one–I don’t have a motorcycle license, and even off the street, you needed one to ride. I’ve always thought that part of the “fun” of driving a motorcycle was the sound, and watching other journalists test these gave an eerie sense of somehow not having the soundtrack on. But not only are these bikes apparently great fun, but they are a lot more comfortable without the vibration. The company builds a portfolio of models for different purposes in a range of prices, so best to check out their website for details. I’m half tempted to get my M1 license so I can give one a test ride.

Automotive Steel is Evolving for Efficiency

At the formal dinner on the evening of Day 2, our keynote speaker was Dave Anderson, Senior Director – Automotive Market from the Steel Market Development Institute. Dave told us about modern steel and how it’s changed over the years in automotive applications. I learned a lot. We hear a lot about “high strength” steel these days, but what does it all mean? Apparently there are hundreds of kinds of steel, and depending on its chemical makeup and processing, it can be extremely strong or very flexible–or possess other qualities, as needed. Making auto components out of different types can reduce weight while enhancing safety. Although the steel industry is smaller in the U.S. than it was years ago, It’s still a big factor in automotive industry–and the SMDI wants to keep it that way.

The Rest of the Cars

With dozens of cars available, I had to sample some others, and I did burn some petroleum doing it.

The Jaguar F-Pace is the brand’s first crossover SUV, and it was impressive and powerful.

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On the other side of the equation, the Toyota CH-R, originally meant to be a Scion, was small and quirky on the outside and drove like a nice small Toyota should.

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One of the hits of the day was the Alfa-Romeo Guilia, in powerhouse Quadrifoglia form. Out on the Monterey County back roads, it was a force, and many of my colleagues got to ride in it on the racetrack.

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I drove the unusual topless Range Rover Evoque convertible on an offroad course. Concentrating on moving slowly and deliberately over the uneven terrain was a nice palate cleanser from driving on the highway.

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I sampled the new, larger MINI Countryman, and it still felt like a MINI–but more luxurious. There’s a plugin hybrid version coming later this year that I’m eager to spend time with.

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A quick run over the hills in the sleek new Volvo V90 was a nice contrast to the MINI. Volvo has its act together, with premium amenities and beautiful styling. This is a wagon version of the new S90 sedan, which I recently tested.

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I found the new Honda Civic hatchback with a six-speed manual and had to take that one for a spin to row the gears. Although much larger than my 1986 Civic Si hatchback, it felt more like those old, fun Hondas of yesteryear. And it was white on the outside and black on the inside–just like my old ride. Note the gorgeous well-watered springtime countryside.

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I tested two Infinitis–the potent and luxurious Q60 coupe and the small, Mercedes-Benz-based QX30 crossover. The former was perhaps the best-looking iteration of Infiniti’s molten styling I’ve seen so far, and the silvery carbon fiber interior trim and white seats were a knockout. The little QX30 felt taut and fun during my brief ride.

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QX30

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Two compact crossovers that have been thoroughly updated got my attention–the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5. These direct competitors show why this segment is taking over from sedans. Solid, attractive, and relatively efficient, they were both steps up from their predecessors.

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Mazda CX-5

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Lastly, I experienced the Navdy Augmented Driving device in an Audi Q7. This little marvel sits atop your instrument panel and provides a wealth of information and options through a head-up device.

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Controlled by a little wheel and button attached to the steering wheel, I could make phone calls, see map directions, read text messages, make musical selections, and much more. Easy to install, the unit attaches magnetically to its base, so you can tuck it away in a little cloth bag in your glove compartment when you park. The goal is to keep you connected without taking your eyes off the road.

Not Driven but Important

I didn’t drive it (mine is identical except for color), but the white Chevrolet Bolt EV went out a lot, and I talked with folks after they drove it to get their reactions.

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As always, the chance to meet and mingle with my old friends and our longtime and new automotive PR colleagues was invaluable. I look forward to following up my new relationships and taking some of the vehicles for week-long evaluations.

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Earth Day 2017 – Driving My Electric Car

IMG_8417This Earth Day comes at a time of significant concern for our home planet. Our new president, continuing in his belligerent, ill-advised way to work against the needs of our children and grandchildren, has appointed climate-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. He’s approving pipelines, reducing regulations, and we hear rumblings about backing out of the Paris accords. What can a concerned person do?

At times when the government isn’t cooperating, you need to act on your own. One of the things I do is to drive an electric car. On January 8, just weeks before the election of our frightening new leader, I took delivery of my  Kinetic Blue Chevrolet Bolt EV. As a journalist, I sometimes drive other cars to review them, but my goal for 2017 and forward is to test and promote cars with battery power–full electrics and also the many hybrid options for folks to drive electric part of the time.

Hybrid cars offer a way to slip into EV driving without risk, because you have a gas engine and an electric motor in the same car. Some come with a larger battery for storing some power to drive in a pure electric mode for a while. For example, the plug-in Chevrolet Volt has an EPA range of 53 miles in pure EV mode before a gasoline engine comes on to charge the battery. The hybrid Ford Fusion sedan delivers great fuel economy by blending its engine and motor to stretch out your fuel about twice as long. There’s a plug-in version that gives you about 27 petrol-free miles. Nearly every car manufacturer offers one or more hybrid today.

Until recently, driving a pure electric meant being constrained by battery range. Cars like the pioneering Nissan Leaf, despite their virtues, couldn’t make it past 80 or 90 miles before requiring a time-consuming recharge. Tesla turned that equation on its ear with its offerings, but they remain out of the affordability range for most people.

My Bolt EV, with its EPA-rated 238 miles of range, eliminates most, if not all, of that worry. Unless you’re planning a cross-country or California trans-state trip, you’re gold. I’ve proven that this winter by using my Bolt for commuting, visiting, and errands all over the San Francisco Bay Area–my home.

Now if I wanted a compact five-door hatchback and was OK with using gas, I may have selected a worthy car like the Honda Fit. It resembles the Bolt EV, but without the 964 pound battery and other amenities, it is a very modest investment, starting at under $17,000 including shipping. I also read yesterday that the new Alfa-Romeo Giulia sports sedan is the same price as the top-level Bolt EV–nearly $44,000. Which one would you pick?

There’s an element of sacrifice to spending that much on a compact (but roomy) hatchback from a mainstream manufacturer, but driving and living with the Bolt EV has been a real pleasure. It’s high enough to slide right in. The back seat is roomy for passengers, and it folds down to provide lots of space for the upright basses and Costco visits. The dashboard is friendly, colorful, and provides a wealth of the information you need. And I really like the interior and exterior styling, even if it attracts virtually no attention on the road.

But if you asked me, I’d say the best part remains the nearly silent, buttery smooth powertrain. I cruise down the freeway at 65 mph and listen to the Bose stereo on the way to work and the feeling is sheer bliss. Without the reciprocating pistons, you won’t feel vibration or hear any of the typical engine sounds. Slide the one-speed transmission into Low (L) and you can use your right foot to do “one pedal” driving that provides some of the feeling of control you used to get  from manual transmissions. Just touch the brake when you need it for sudden stops.

I like knowing that my car is contributing less to global warming than internal combustion engine-equipped cars, but doing it without sacrifice is even better. We Bolt EV drivers have an active Facebook page, too, with more than 2,500 members!

We have a long way to go–and not a lot of time to get there–but individual choices, regardless of what our temporarily derailed government says, can make all the difference. Today, I drove my EV on Earth Day. Driving it every day will help make every day Earth Day. Please join me.

Happy Earth Day.

My Chevy Bolt EV – Day 3

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I don’t think the sun has come out yet on me and my Bolt EV, but I’ve enjoyed motoring around in it anyway.

I’m used to adjusting to a new car every week, so this one is no different–except that it’s staying with me for three years. I got my phone hooked up at the dealership, so that was easy. Now, I’ve got my favorite FM and SiriusXM stations all set up on the audio screen. I’m using the little up/down paddles on the left side of the steering wheel to move between them. I’m a big fan of controls you can operate without looking. This is the best system I’ve had since Chrysler/Jeep/Fiat’s system on the back of the steering wheel.

That wheel in the Bolt, by the way, has controls all over it, as it should, and it’s nice and fat and the leather wrapping feels comfortable in my hands. Like some of the interior working areas, it’s dark gray, but the rest of the interior is light gray and white, so it’s airy and pleasant in there, even with rain outside.

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I’ve charged the car up to full now. It read like this today, with the climate control turned off, getting about 10 more miles of range.

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Of course, this is an approximation, but the range shows that with careful driving, achieving what the EPA got in its tests is a reasonable possibility. The Bolt EV shows the estimated range based on your driving (only 106 miles on my car so far, so not much to go on). The Max and Min are what’s possible. While driving home today, I had the Max up to 286 miles–thanks to some sloggy stop-and-go in the rain.

I’ve tried out all three of the versions of the instrument panel. This is the Enhanced one, with more information on the sides. There are two others, Classic and Modern. Classic has the least detail. The Modern one uses a little ball on the right side. Keeping it centered makes you drive more efficiently. The Enhanced panel shows if you’re using or regenerating power–a typical, and useful stat to have in an EV.

I’ve noticed that I’m comfortable in the tall, firm, seats, but they are a little firmer than most others I’ve experienced in my hundreds of test cars. Since the car has a firm suspension and the tires are highly inflated, it’s already a firm ride. But that makes the car feel responsive and sporty–up to a point. We’ll see how the chairs feel during longer trips–although I doubt if I’ll ever spend five hours straight in the car unless I know I can charge it up on the other end of that trip.

With all this rain, I’ve seen a lot of my wipers. They are the kind that are mounted on the outer ends of the windshield area and cross each other. This leaves a little “v” of uncleared window in the upper middle, but the mirror and the cameras take that up anyway. They clear almost to the windshield pillars, so that’s great. I’ve used them in the standard two settings and a variety of intermittent settings–and the occasional mist cycle. Totally standard.

I carried my upright bass in the car tonight. It worked perfectly, as I expected. I removed the feather-light cargo cover and flipped down the seats. With the hard panel in place in the back, I had a nice, flat surface for the bass. The scroll lay on the center armrest. Perfect. My fellow orchestra member has ordered her own Bolt EV–in the same color–so she was very excited to see mine tonight.

That’s all for now–but there’ll be much more. I’ve got more screens to view, for example (although I’ve already gotten to know about the Energy ones).

 

Chevy Bolt Anticipation

img_6908It’s two days before Christmas (and one before the first night of Chanukah). Anticipation is in the air. But I’ve been in a state of anticipation since October 11, when I ordered my Chevrolet Bolt.

As an auto writer, I’m always driving someone else’s car for an article, but I decided that this car is the one I want for me. I think it will be ideal for my needs–even if I’m only spending part of my time driving it.

What I’m trying to learn now is patience. It’s one thing to walk into a dealership, stroll around the lot, find a car you like, and then sit down and negotiate to drive it home. It’s another thing to order a car you’ve never actually seen or even driven and wait. You hope it’ll be as good as you’ve heard.

I did manage to get down to the San Francisco Auto Show in November and see a Bolt (see photo above). It was, amazingly, the same color I ordered, and I walked around it, talked with people about it, sat in it, got out, sat in it again, and hovered around it for a while.

I also visited a dealership and drove one. I was pleased that the experience behind the wheel (and in the back seat) was as good as I’d hoped. Having the car win awards right out of the chute was encouraging, too, making me feel like I was making the right choice.

The ordering process itself was simple. I went into the dealership and specified what I wanted–color, features, etc. Then, I waited to hear that the order was submitted. Then, I waited to be informed that the factory had received it. After that, it took a while to find out that the factory was preparing to build the car. Then, I learned that it was built but awaiting transport.

Today, I found out that my Bolt is on its way to California on a train. When it arrives here, it’ll go to a distribution center to be checked out before being trucked over the dealership. When it’ll arrive at Boardwalk Chevrolet in Redwood City is uncertain, but my great salesman emailed me today he may be able to track the progress of the train. That should be interesting.

I wish they could show you your car being built at the factory. I wish they put a little camera with a homing device on it, so you could follow its progress. We’re used to tracking our Amazon purchases from the moment it’s shipped to the minute it lands on your doorstep, so what do you say, Chevy?

Am I being obsessive? I still have a schedule of test cars into the middle of January, and am not giving up my column. But this is only the third time I’ve ordered a car–the second one for my own use–and it’s taking longer than I thought.

It’s definitely a team sport. The Chevy Bolt EV Owners Group on Facebook is approaching 1,000 members. I expect not every single person in that group will sign a purchase agreement or lease, but there’s a real groundswell of interest. As a journalist, I’m hoping to put a real public face on this car, and I plan to take it as far as it’ll go.

A few days ago, I ordered my home charger from ChargePoint. I’ll get it installed and ready for when I need it. I’m hoping to open up some space in my garage during the holiday break, but I’m getting a long enough cord that it’ll reach outside too, if necessary.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, my family will open gifts, and we’ll have a great time together. But my real gift is still on its way. The exquisite pain of waiting makes it all the more exciting.

Lucid Air – Enlightened Personal Transportation

lucid_air_2-25percentAs electric cars go, the Tesla, particularly the groundbreaking Model S, is the pinnacle of style and performance. But in its rear-view mirror, here comes some serious competition—the Lucid Air.

If you’ve never heard of Lucid, that’s not a surprise. Even those of us in the car writing business have heard little. The company renamed itself recently, and they’ve been working quietly to produce not just a concept and a plan, but a real car. I saw it yesterday, and rode in a test version, and it’s the real deal.

Per Zak Edson, Lucid’s Director of Marketing, the car world is stagnant today, with a wide variety of choices that don’t provide a complete experience. The Lucid, however, is designed from the start to combine the feel of a luxury car, the performance of a sports car, and the urban maneuverability of a midsize sedan—all in one vehicle.

The Air, Lucid’s sole car at this point, is meant to relate to you, and be a seamless, personal experience. It’s a new kind of car, a segment-breaker, that is Mercedes E-Class sized on the outside for easy maneuverability, S-Class sized inside, and low and sleek like a sports car. It’s a no-compromise proposition, designed to give you back your energy, space, and time.

Inside, rather than presenting you with a large screen like in a Tesla, the Air gives you an update on the familiar instrument panel, but with more. It’s configurable, and it will know what to show you when you need it. So, for example, the left panel gives you controls for starting up, and once underway, displays your ongoing options.

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The best way to communicate with the Air will be with your voice, just as you would with Siri. And as the car learns your routine, it can give you the best routing to your destination, remind you about stops you should make, and basically, act like the computers in Star Trek. The goal is to keep your phone in your pocket and your eyes on the road. The maximum capability with the minimum effort is the aim here—connected, natural, and adaptive.

The Air will debut ready for autonomous driving, but you’ll have a manual mode and a co-pilot intermediate step, where the handsome center portion of the instrument panel will show you what’s happening so you can intervene if it’s necessary. I rode in a test vehicle on a closed track and saw how the car knows where it’s going, turns on its turn signal by itself, and shows you what’s going on.

The view in the instrument panel screen changes depending on whether you’re driving or it’s doing the work. As a driver, you’ll see supplementary information, like a bird’s eye view, but while it’s driving, you’ll see what the car sees.

You can change the look and feel of the screens too. And, there is a flat iPad style panel that angles out down low for detailed views and entering information, as needed. Push a button to retract it. Sweet.

The clean, subtle style of the interior is exemplified in the way the 29 speakers in the high-end audio system are incorporated in, subtly hidden in the panels, without garish or clashing grilles. And there’s active noise cancelling, so in this nearly silent EV, you’ll hear everything the music can provide.

The car looks like a futuristic version of a full-size sedan. Derek Jenkins, the designer, used his talents before at Mazda, a small Japanese company known for its clean, expressive designs. In the Air, Jenkins has produced a vehicle with subtle surface transitions and some surprises.

The nose, for example, uses ten little headlamps on each side. Each tiny rectangle contains 4,820 individual lenses, like an insect’s eye, and each uses a gimbal to move with the car as it turns. They were going for a look different from the “two eyes” we’re accustomed to.

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Below the lighting strips, behind a cover, are the radar, lidar, and cameras needed to permit autonomous driving. And the shape creates a vortex of air to cool the motor components.

Lucid believes that California provides the perfect blend of technical innovation and the spirit and emotion of life there. So, the designers, led by Sue Magnusson, have chosen California-based interior themes, including Lake Tahoe (warm oranges) and Santa Monica (bright, sunny whites), Mojave at night (dark shades) and Santa Cruz.

I got to experience the four themes not only by touching material samples and conversing with friendly Lucid folks, but by sitting in a solitary seat and wearing Virtual Reality goggles. These themes will be knockouts in real life—I got to see Santa Cruz in the debut sample car. The nearly all-glass roof above each theme is astounding, too.

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Part of the vision for the Air is of air travel in an executive jet, blended with clean interior design, like a spacious, relaxing room. In opposition to today’s complex, busy lines, the exterior and interior of the car are elegant and refined. And the rear seat is configurable as a limo-like bench or as a pair of reclining chairs. The chairs lean way back, and from there you can look right up through the nearly all-glass roof. And with the ultra-spacious interior, the dash panel looks a half mile away.

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How did they get S-Class accommodations inside an E-Class body? Super-efficient packaging.

In a fascinating discussion with David Mosely, Director, Powertrain, I learned about the extremely compact motors, one at each end of the car, that are small enough to fit under your arm (although I imagine they’re quite heavy). Positioning them carefully, along with a new compact type of differential and cooling system, allows for front and rear trunks.

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Damian Harty, the Director of Chassis Engineering, gave me a tour through the suspension’s various aluminum pieces, each of which fits carefully around the structural components near it. It’s ingenious, and beautiful, too.

How about performance? The two small motors, plus a carefully configured battery that fits beneath the car, deliver a hearty 600 horsepower, good for a 2.5-second zero-to-60 time. The standard 100 kWh battery should provide 300 miles of range while the optional 130 kWh battery is expected to deliver 400 miles. The battery is not a monolith but a carefully shaped essential element of the car. It’s shaped to allow extra legroom for the very comfortable rear-seat passengers.

Safety? I viewed a rugged looking body structure that uses top grade aluminum and is designed to deform perfectly in a crash. The advanced safety systems should ensure that that happens very rarely, though.

Lucid plans to produce its cars in a new, state-of-the-art factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, set to break ground in the middle of 2017. It’ll be a sprawling facility someday, but the plan is to roll it out in three phases. Then, as more capacity is needed, they’ll just expand to fill the space. That saves a lot of startup cost while leaving room to grow along with future volume. By 2022, it should employ 2,000 workers.

Peter Rawlinson, Lucid’s chief technical officer, designed the Tesla Model S and has worked with Lotus and Jaguar. Rawlinson told me the goal with the Air is to create one exquisite and high-priced model, at around $100,000. However, as costs go down and volume goes up, Lucid will be able to offer versions at closer to $65,000. That’s what Henry Ford with the Model T prices, although the two cars couldn’t be more dissimilar.

The employees I spoke with at Lucid all told me about the close collaboration they enjoyed with each other while developing the Air. Designers and engineers were collocated, for example, so styling and technical design could communicate throughout the process. The Lucid Air itself then, with it’s perfectly coordinated components, reflects the team of 300 people who created it.

Audi A3 E-Tron: Step One

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The Audi A3 e-tron gives the premium German marque an entry point to electric motoring. Based on the previous generation Sportback wagon, it combines a 150-horsepower 1.4-liter gas engine with a 102-horsepower 75 kW electric motor to make a combined 204 horsepower drivetrain. With 258 lb.-ft. of torque, it pulls the compact wagon from 0-60 in 7.6 seconds.

Electric vehicles, even half-electric ones, use the MPGe rating, which offers an efficiency standard that you can use to compare competing vehicles. For example, you can measure the A3 against the plug-in Prius or the Chevrolet Volt. The A3 e-tron earns an 86 MPGe rating using electricity and gasoline, and a 39 MPG with gasoline only. I averaged 96.4 MPGe during my test week. The window sticker claims I’ll save $3,750 a year in fuel costs over the average new vehicle.

EPA fuel economy ratings are 8 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas. The 138 grams per mile of CO2 is lower than most cars, but, of course, higher than an all-electric car.

One way to compare plug-in hybrids is by the range they can drive on electricity alone. The A3 claims 17 miles, and in my 18-mile commute, I found that to be accurate. Just before I arrived at my office, the gauge indicated the switchover. So, I plugged in and had enough to get almost home, and so it went. By charging at both ends, I used very little gas for commuting.

Charging is simple. Plug in to standard 240-Volt (level 2) chargers at work or in other public places, or use your own household current, which is 120 Volts (level 1).  It’s an eight-hour process at home, comfortably overnight. On a level 2 charger, it’s just two and a quarter hours. You won’t be hogging the chargers while others wait. They’ll appreciate that.

The A3 is on the lower end of the range listing for plug-ins, but it still makes a big difference. The Chevy Volt offers an honest 53 miles of charge before switching over to its gas engine, which generates electricity to run the electric motor. The Audi is typical of a hybrid, using the gas engine and electric motor interchangeably as needed.

The A3 e-tron offers four driving modes, which you select on the dash. EV mode uses the electric motor only. In Hybrid mode the car’s computer picks the most efficient power source for the driving conditions—EV, gasoline, or both. In Hold Battery mode, the car is a hybrid only, saving the battery charge for driving all-electric later. The Charge Battery mode uses the engine to charge the battery while you’re driving at freeway speeds.

I ended up taking a six-hour round-trip to an exciting but farther away than I thought microbrewery, so for that trip, the A3 behaved like a normal hybrid car. And that’s what distinguishes a plug-in from an all-electric car. You can pretty much go wherever you want to, but drive hyper efficiently when you stay local.

The 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack sits under the rear seat, and because it doesn’t take up any cargo space, the wagon is fully usable to carry your stuff. Other plug-ins like the Prius and Volt are hatchbacks, so the A3 has an advantage with a lower sill for easier placement of, say, a bass, in my case.

The A3 Sportback wears a new name: e-tron, which Audi will use to identify other, future electric and hybrid models, too. For now, it looks and feels like an A3, which is a good thing. The premium craftsmanship inside, simply presented at this level, is pleasant and feels substantial and carefully thought out. My Misano Red Pearl Effect test car greeted me with a sweet leather aroma when I opened the door for the first time. The switchgear works nicely, the eyeball vents swivel satisfyingly, and the it’s a pleasant place to be.

The A3 e-tron comes in three levels: Premium, Premium Plus, and Prestige. Base price is $37,900. My tester was a Premium Plus, which added $4,100 to the tab. That got me extras like 17-inch, 15-spoke alloy wheels, 3-D optic inlays, the Audi music interface, heated front seats, and aluminum window surrounds. The $2,600 Technology package added a navigation system, Audi Connect online services, and more. They charged $575 for the fancy red paint (a typical Audi upsell). The bottom line came to $46,100.

If you’re an Audiphile, this is your high-efficiency choice. An all-electric e-tron model should be here soon.

Nissan Leaf – EV Pioneer

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The Nissan Leaf was designed from scratch to be a gas-free all-electric model. They’ve sold more than 185,000 of them since its debut in 2010 as an ‘11, and a pioneer in mainstream EVs.

The Leaf hasn’t changed much over the years, though, until now. The 2016 model looks the same, but you now can get one with a 30 kWh lithium-ion battery. Adding just 46 pounds, it’s got higher power density, so it earns a 107-mile driving range from the EPA, versus 84 for the old 24 kWh battery, a 27 percent improvement.

For most driving, and many people, 107 miles is plenty. I drove my Deep Blue Pearl Leaf back and forth to work every day, in quiet comfort, the Bose audio system pouring out music from the standard Sirius XM radio and Bluetooth-connected selections from my Spotify stream.

The problem comes when you want to drive further. I got home one day with 85 miles on the range meter, and we had to take a quick trip that was about 70 miles. Because I wasn’t sure that was enough, we took our internal combustion engine car.

Although its design is aging, the Leaf feels smooth, solid, and friendly. With its virtually silent and vibration-free 80 kW motor, you fly along, almost by magic. Torque is available from the moment you step on the accelerator pedal, so there’s plenty of hustle from the 107 horsepower and 187 lb.-ft. of torque moving the 3,391-lb. car.

The EPA rates the Leaf at 124 MPGe City, 101 Highway, and 112 Overall. The Smog and Greenhouse Gas numbers are perfect 10s. The Leaf also gives you a miles-per-kWh rating, which was 4.1 for me. With 30 kWh, that looks like about 120 miles per charge.

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The one-speed transmission is controlled by a “palm shifter,” which, with its bright blue plastic front edge, reminded me of a Duncan Imperial yoyo. Just slip it back into Drive or forward into Reverse or push the Park button on the top.

The battery below the floor means a low center of gravity, so the Leaf is stable, and you feel secure darting around through traffic. But you are encouraged to drive gently to preserve charge. Nissan gives you a little Eco indicator at the top of the instrument panel, which assembles a little tree. The completed tree shrinks and moves to the lower right and you start on another one. I normally grew two on my 18-mile commute.

Unlike some other EVs, the Leaf is rated as a midsize car, and fits five adults, while providing 24 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat up. Drop the rear seat for an additional six cubic feet. I hauled my upright bass with ease, although the storage area isn’t flat—it’s deeper at the rear.

To charge the Leaf, a panel flips up on the car’s nose. In there, you’ll find the standard plug for using a Level 2 (240-volt) charger or a cable to charge (slowly) at home at 120 volts. A Level 2 charge takes about 6 hours. Upper level Leafs include a Quick Charge plug, which lets you refill the battery to 80 percent capacity in half an hour.

The Leaf is so quiet that Nissan provides an “Approaching Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians.” It’s a low-volume beep, which emanates from a speaker under the hood at speeds below 16 mph. I only heard it when backing out of my driveway.

The three models start with the S, the price leader, at $29,860. It comes with push-button start, electric windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning, and a decent audio system, but gets only the 24 kW battery.

The mid-level SV starts at $35,050. It has the 30 kW battery and the Quick Charge plug. It also features the NissanConnect system with Navigation, a larger 7-inch display screen, two more audio speakers, and 17-inch alloys in place of 16-inch steel wheels.

The SL, at $36,790, is distinguished mainly by its comfortable leather seats. You also get a photovoltaic solar panel on the rear spoiler, heated rear seats, a cargo cover, and a couple other items. My SL tester came with the Premium Package, with an upgraded Bose 7-speaker audio system and the Around View monitor (it gives a bird’s eye view). It topped out at $39,390. All prices listed include the $850 delivery charge.

Retail prices are perhaps irrelevant, since many EVs are leased at bargain rates, and there are government tax credits that can significantly reduce your costs. Figure in that electricity is much cheaper than gasoline and EVs require much less maintenance, and it could be a real bargain.

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The Leaf, built in Smyrna, Tennessee, has been the most popular EV out there, and if you’re not budgeted for a Tesla, is still a good option.