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.

Volkswagen e-Golf Delivers

2016_e-golf_5254The Volkswagen Golf has been sold around the world for 40 years. A mainstream model in Europe, it’s less central to VW’s model mix in the U.S. However, with a major redesign for 2015 came Volkswagen’s first all-electric car, the e-Golf, and it was worth the wait.

The e-Golf is aimed at pure electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. There is no sacrifice in driving enjoyment or practicality in choosing the electric option. In fact, it boasts the same 95 cubic feet of capacity as the gas version, with its battery tucked away out of sight.

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The e-Golf’s motor puts out 115 horsepower and 199 lb.-ft. of torque through a single-speed automatic transmission. This electric Golf still delivers the same fine road feel as the sporty GTI, and at 3,391 pounds, doesn’t feel sluggish. Although it didn’t rocket ahead like a GTI, at 10 seconds from zero to 60, the feel of electric motor-driven acceleration is instant and exciting.

Naturally, the driving range of an all-electric vehicle is at the top of any driver’s mind. The e-Golf gets an official rating of 83 miles, but when I charged the car up, I saw a reading as high as 98 miles on the instrument panel gauge. How you drive, what kinds of roads you drive on, and how you program the car’s adjustable settings make some difference, but this car didn’t feel like it would leave you in the lurch.

The official EPA numbers are 126 and 105 highway. That’s MPGe – miles per gallon equivalent. Use these numbers to compare electric vehicles. Pretty impressive.

To ease your range anxiety, VW provides a roadside assistance program. If you run out of charge within 100 miles of home, they will take your car to a charging station and to get you home via taxi or other transportation method on their dime.

To maximize your e-Golf’s efficiency, there are three driving profiles: Normal, Eco and Eco +. The latter two progressively lower the horsepower and top speed, change the accelerator action, and in the case of the Eco + setting, turn off the climate control, to reduce energy consumption. You can also program the amount of regenerative braking to generate a small amount of juice in the normal setting or produce progressively more in two other settings.

VW provides the VW Car-Net app, so you can keep track of your charging, turn the climate control on or off remotely, and monitor performance data for your car. Part of owning an electric is the science project aspect, where you are thinking about what your car is doing rather than just sitting in it and going. It’s important and fun, too.

The VW Golf was all-new for 2015. It’s a two- or four-door hatchback, but also, in 2015 it took on the wagon role from the Jetta. Numerous engines and trim levels are available, but you can tell the e-Golf by its blue accents.

VW originally sent the e-Golf to market as the loaded SEL Premium model. That means full climate control, heated seats, leather steering wheel and shift knob, alloy wheels, heated mirrors, and the like. Now, VW also offers the SE, which shaves thousands of dollars off the price by swapping out the alloy wheels for steel, LED headlamps for standard halogen, and cloth seats in place of leatherette. Federal and state tax rebates help mitigate some of that cost as well.

Charging is simple. However, using household 110/120 volt current, it could take you 20 hours to fill the battery from empty. A 220/240 volt charger, which you’d install at your house if you owned the car, can do it in less than 4 hours. The e-Golf SEL or SE with the optional Quick Charge package has the SAE combined quick charge socket, so you can get an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes in a pinch.

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It’s particularly quiet inside the e-Golf because when VW removed the vibration-causing gas engine, they went after the little sounds that could annoy you, which were suddenly exposed. The car emits a little sound at low speeds, so oblivious pedestrians are warned of your approach.

Part of owning an electric is the knowledge that you’re reducing your carbon footprint and helping the planet. In that spirit, VW has teamed up with 3Degrees, a renewable energy service provider, to offset the e-Golfs greenhouse gas emissions from its production, distribution, and 36,000 miles of charging.

The SE starts at $28,995 with the SEL at $35,595. The SEL earns its extra price with things like Driver Assistance, Navigation, leatherette upholstery, quick charging, and more. The SE with the quick charge option is probably the sweet spot. Leasing remains the way to get into one of these cars surprisingly affordably.

My Pacific Blue tester was a delight. Electric motoring is smooth and pleasant. With an 11-mile commute at the time I tested it, I had plenty of charge left over at the end of the day. This is an ideal commute vehicle, with its quiet, spacious interior and gasoline-free ways, but as with any other electric car (except a Tesla), you’ll need another car for long trips.

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Volvo XC90 T8 Hybrid – Unique

The all-new Volvo XC90

The all-new Volvo XC90 is a handsome, luxurious, comfortable, fuel efficient, and expensive large crossover. All all new, it’s a huge step forward for the Chinese-owned Swedish brand.

The regular gasoline versions are badged T6’s, but my car I tested was a Volvo XC90 T8, the world’s first seven-passenger plug-in hybrid SUV.

All XC90s share a potent 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that uses both super- and turbo-charging to put out 313 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. The T8 adds an electric motor and a battery pack to deliver limited electric-only motoring and a total of 400 horsepower and 472 lb.-ft.  of torque. I drove my 18-mile commute entirely on electricity once, but normally achieved just under that. The center screen shows graphical and digital statistics, and where the power is flowing.

Hybrid system settings are Hybrid, the default mode, which switches back and forth from fuel to charge. Pure mode means all-electric. Power mode combines the motor’s instant torque and the gas engine’s size to provide V8 level performance. Save mode lets you retain the battery charge for later use.

An EV range in the teens is typical for plug-in hybrids, and remarkable for a 5,059-lb. vehicle. The EPA gives it a 53 MPGe rating (compare that to other battery vehicles). In pure EV mode, it’s much better. Gas-only delivers 25 MPG. My tester averaged 22.7 mpg over 63 hours and 1,578 miles, including previous journalist loans.

Green scores are 7 for Smog and a split number for the Fuel Economy/Greenhouse Gas rating—7 for MPG and an 8 for CO2.

Pricing for the T8 starts at $69,050. My tester, with the $3,500 Inscription level upgrade, plus a raft of safety, convenience, and style packages and features, came to $84,005. That’s a big price tag, but this car is a great experience.It’s filled with luxury features, including an Orefors crystal shift knob and some beautiful food trim.

The all-new Volvo XC90

The XC90 T8 was named Green Car Journal’s Luxury Green Car of the Year, and is part of what is a welcome resurgence for Volvo, a brand with a historic commitment to safety, today’s latest technology, and now, a greener way to move a family of seven.

Yeah, it’s not a full-fledged EV, but it’s a move in the right direction. I’m look forward to Volvo offering a full EV before too long.

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Mercedes-Benz’s Electric Option–B250e

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There’s an electric-powered Mercedes-Benz out there, but you can be forgiven if you haven’t noticed. Quietly, the B250e is rolling around town, if you happen to be in California or other EV friendly locales.

The B is a five-door hatchback–not the shape you expect from Mercedes. The B-Class is sold in other parts of the world, including Canada, as a small, utility-minded gasoline-powered car, but in the U.S., B-Class cars are EVs only (labeled Electric Drive). There’s a tiny A-Class sold overseas, too, but you won’t see one here.

It makes sense for the German giant to put an all-electric powertrain in a small vehicle. Roughly the size of a Nissan Leaf, it has less weight to labor the battery pack with. With a folding rear seat, it’s spacious in the back. In the bright blue of my colleague Pam’s new commuter car, it has a friendly aspect to it.

I’ve been eager to test Mercedes’ baby EV, so when I saw one attached to the chargers at my building, I slipped my card under the driver’s side wiper and waited for the owner to respond. Pam did, and offered to show me around the car–and even let me drive it for a few minutes.

The B may look like a generic hatchback (despite it’s dramatic character line that rises up the side), but inside, it feels like a Mercedes-Benz. While not furnished in rare woods, and rich leather, it has dignity and mass, and an instrument panel that looks like a Mercedes-Benz’ should. It feels more upscale than other EVs I’ve tested. It can’t match a Tesla, of course, but it’s not priced as one, either.

Driving the car is, judging from my brief test, pleasant and, of course, silent. There are settings for S (sport), E (eco) and E+ (eco plus), and, I think, a “normal” setting. If you set it to S, you get the full benefit of an electric motor’s instant torque and rocket ahead with a snap. In E or especially E+, the drivetrain feels anaesthetized, but that’s so you use less juice.

Stats: 132 kW electric motor, 177 horsepower, 251 lb.-ft. of torque, 0-60 in 7.9 seconds.

Pam, who stepped out of a reliable Mercedes-Benz M Class SUV, has been getting about 83 miles per charge in her new B, which puts it in the realm of the original Leaf and other cars like the Ford Focus EV and Fiat 500e. Mercedes claims 87 miles. But the future is looming, with 200+ mile range EVs on their way, so I’m guessing that the Tesla-sourced engine/battery will be getting an upgrade before too long. Meanwhile, for a commute from southern San Jose to San Mateo, California, the little Mercedes-Benz EV is just the ticket. Pam has level 2 (240 volt) charging at home and here at work, so she never has to run out, as long as she doesn’t stray too far from the normal path.

Pricing is officially $41,450, but as you might expect, leasing drops costs considerably. Pam leased hers for a little bit more than $300 a month with some money down. The Federal rebate was applied directly to the lease, and her California state rebate is on its way. She relishes her white carpool-lane stickers, too.

The B is a natural competitor to the BMW i3, and, as these two German competitors go, it’s the more sober, elegant one, versus the radical BMW. But by all means, you should cross-shop.

I’m eagerly awaiting my chance to spend a week with this car, but for now, it looks like a winner to me–for the right driver and purpose.

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4th Generation Prius–Wacky and Vastly Improved

IMG_5614.JPGThe Toyota Prius has been a green car icon for 20 years now (17 in the U.S.).  It’s substantially redone this year for its fourth generation.

The most obvious change is the startling styling. The new Prius is longer, lower, and wider, but not like the mammoth late 1950’s American cars. It’s a radical interpretation of the now classic Prius proportions, with a squinting face and a finned tail. Thanks partially to that shape, the new car has one of the lowest cds (coefficient of drag) in the industry – 0.24.

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Since the second generation 2004 Prius, the interior has been space-age and swoopy, but the 2016 model is vastly improved. The sweep of the soft-touch panels from dash to doors is dramatic, and with a lower cowl and side windows, visibility is better too. The center-mounted instruments sit on a dramatically layered and in piano black panel. My tester’s only odd item was a white plastic center console (and on the steering wheel and dash), which reminded me of a porcelain bathroom sink.

The Prius has always provided an energy flow display, but the new one offers two. The center console houses the big, colorful one, but the little one in the slim band below the windshield helps you monitor when the engine is on. With awareness, you can lift off the accelerator slightly to move from gasoline to electricity. Being always informed lets you drive at the highest efficiency.

As a hybrid, the Prius uses both its 1.8-liter gas engine and two electric motors to move. For 2016, the engine is set to be on less, so the car runs as an EV more. Some components, such as the continuously variable transaxle and power unit, are smaller and lighter, and some body panels, like the hood, are made of lightweight aluminum.

The new Prius dumps the old nickel-metal hydride battery technology for modern lithium-ion. The battery pack is smaller and flatter, so it fits under the rear seat instead of beneath the cargo area, leaving more cargo space.

The EPA economy numbers are improved, at 54 City, 50 Highway, and 52 Combined. I averaged a splendid 57.2 mpg over a busy week. After you turn off the car, the instrument panel briefly displays a rating of your driving efficiency for that trip. I averaged as much as 80.1 mpg a ride. The screen displays a score, say 74/100, and suggests other measures of efficiency, such as lowering the climate control temperature or accelerating more gently. The Green numbers are 7 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas.

Unlike a pure electric, the Prius lets you drive as far as you like with great mpg. However, previous models weren’t a great joy to drive, feeling a bit removed from the road. The new model is greatly improved. Built on the Toyota New Global Architecture, it features a high-strength body structure and a double-wishbone independent rear suspension. This, along with a lower center of gravity, makes day-to-day driving much more engaging.

The new Prius is much quieter inside, thanks to numerous improvements in sound reduction. That benefits music listening, a necessity for the daily commute grind. My tester featured a JBL system with 10 GreenEdge speakers. I played music from a variety of sources, including an easy Bluetooth hookup with my iPhone. There’s a charging spot on the console, but it didn’t work on my iPhone. I think it’s better with Androids.

The Prius comes with the new Toyota Safety Sense technology. This includes a Pre-collision system with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert, Automatic High-beam, and Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. There’s also an Intelligent Parking Assist system available. As you’d expect, the high-tech hybrid is a showcase for Toyota’s other technological breakthroughs.

You can get your Prius in six flavors. The entry point is the Two, at $25,035. The Three model adds more convenience and technology features, and the Four is the top-of-the-line model. The Two and Three are also available in Eco versions, which use weight-saving and technological tweaks to up the fuel economy a bit. At the top is the Four Touring—the ultimate Prius, at $30,835. All prices shown include the “delivery and handling fee.”

My tester came in a bright new color—Hypersonic Red. A $395 option, it makes the car stand out in traffic. My tester, with the Premium Convenience Package ($1,705) and Advanced Technology Package ($1,935), as well as a Four Season Floor Mat Package ($364) totaled up to $33,884.

The Prius Prime, a plug-in version of the Prius, arrives soon, for even great efficiency.

Today, hybrids have an important role in minimizing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Driving a Prius is now more efficient and fun. And the extreme styling does grow on you.

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Toyota Mirai – EV Powered by Hydrogen

Electric cars are becoming commonplace, but if you really want to sample the latest technology, drive a hydrogen-powered electric car. That’s what the Toyota Mirai is. Mirai, by the way, means “future” in Japanese.

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I had a chance to spend an hour with a shiny white Mirai yesterday, and it was a very pleasant drive. In fact, it felt pretty much like a nicely turned out midsize luxury sedan.

But this is no ordinary car. It runs solely on electricity, but you don’t get the power by plugging it in. No–the power control unit, tucked under the prominent hood, controls energy from the fuel stack, which is located under the vehicle and manufactures electricity  chemically, like a battery.

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Fuel cells are an interesting and complicated subject I won’t delve into here, but in essence, you put in hydrogen and generate electricity to run a motor. The only byproduct is water–H2O. There’s a button on the dash where you can release the accumulated water, which accumulates at about 1/3 cup per mile. Somehow, in my test, we forgot to use this feature, but the experts who guided me told me that the water is so pure you could drink it (but it’s not recommended).

The Mirai looks a bit ungainly in photographs, but in person it stands strong and proud, wearing Toyota’s latest styling, also seen on the all-new 2016 Prius. No one can accuse Toyota of being plain vanilla anymore. The most noticeable feature from the front is the large “gills,” which I’m told allow more air into the motor area for the fuel cell to stay cool. They are also a different look, and believe me, are more compelling in person.

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The roof has a pillarless, floating look, seen also on the Prius and on a few other cars today, so it’s definitely the latest style. The proportions are masculine in their mass but feminine in their roundness (forgive the stereotypes), but I think the car could appeal to a wide range of folks.

Inside, the Mirai is curves and edges intertwined, with a luxurious feel. The door slams with an authoritative thunk. I learned that the Mirai is assembled in the same plant as the extremely limited and expensive LFA supercar, in Japan, by craftsmen who sweat every detail. The seats feature a complex, compelling stitch pattern, likened to aliens by my guide. They’re covered in SofTex, an artificial but pleasantly pliable leatherlike material.

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The instrument panel features the normal buttons and switches. The climate control uses the touch-sensitive sliders seen in a few other vehicles. Once you get used to them you can just tap to make adjustments. The steering wheel has the usual controls for accessories and speed control. The dash gives you lots of interesting information about how your Mirai is doing.

I peeked in the trunk. It’s tall and wide, but not as deep as a non-electric, since the hydrogen tank takes up a little room back there. No big deal, but you won’t pack any surfboards in there.

My ride was in the western area of San Francisco. I started up on 2nd Avenue and the car accelerated heartily, emitting just a slight whine. The sound is what you’d expect from an EV. I didn’t hear anything that sounded like a fuel cell, as it does its crucial work in silence, apparently. Brakes are nicely modulated, steering has a well weighted feel, and the car feels a lot like a Lexus, appropriate since it shares its platform with one. This is definitely much more car than a Camry or a Prius.

I wound through the San Francisco Presidio and down past Crissy Field, then climbed the steep Divisadero Street hill quietly and effortlessly. Then, I headed west again, returning to where I started, all too soon.

Hydrogen cars are likely to be part of the future automotive solution. If plug-in electric vehicles have a range problem, needing a recharge every 80-100 miles today (excepting Tesla), hydrogen cars have an infrastructure problem. They don’t have a range problem per se, with an EPA rating of 312 miles per tankful, but fueling stations are extremely scarce.

Toyota is investing in building up a network, working with companies such as First Element to set up stations throughout California. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are a few, including one in Hayward, just a couple of miles from my home. I heard yesterday that there’s a station in Harris Ranch (near the Tesla supercharger) that allows San Francisco-to-Los Angeles trips, complete with a rest stop and a tasty meal. Toyota has 20 certified stations in California today.

An issue could arise if you took your Mirai out of state, away from hydrogen fuel and Mirai-certified service locations. Like driving a compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle, fueling will be the issue. Take your other car to see Mount Rushmore.

How about if you have a mechanical issue with your Mirai? You must take it to a Mirai-certified Toyota dealership, which has the proper tools, service bays, and training to take care of the fuel cell. For ordinary things like brakes, you can go to any Toyota shop. There are eight certified Mirai dealerships in California–four in the north and four in the south.

So, what’s the price on this baby? I didn’t see an actual window sticker, but the retail is $57,500. However, consider this. You can buy or lease this car now. The current lease deal is $499/month for 36 months, 12,000 miles a year. Not only do you get California and Federal rebates, but Toyota is offering one of its own. And, as more than icing on the cake, Toyota will issue you a card good for up to $15,000 worth of fuel for the first three years. Service is included for that period too. So, lease the car and you essentially pay nothing but your lease payment for three years. Considering the competitors in the $57,000 range, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and so on, it’s almost a steal.

Yes, as a Mirai driver you’ll have to think about refueling, and you may have to go out of your way. You can’t just pick up and drive to South Dakota on a whim. But, if you do have travel in mind, Toyota offers seven days a year of free rental of another vehicle. So, drop off your Mirai and take, say, a Highlander for a trip.

There are some questions. What will hydrogen cost when you DO have to start paying for it? Currently, it’s made primarily using natural gas, and costs $13-16 a kilogram. The tank holds 5.1 kg, so that’s $65-80 per fill-up. In three years, the cost could drop substantially.

Another issue is, just how environmentally friendly is hydrogen fuel if you need to use natural gas to make it? For now, natural gas is the easiest way, but there are numerous alternatives, including using waste to generate it. See the numerous videos on Youtube for much more information.

When Toyota introduced the Prius in 1996 in Japan (and 1999 in the U.S.), it was a bold venture, and the initial buyers were pioneers. Of course, those cars used regular gasoline, but still, it was a little bit of a risk. Now, in its fourth generation, on an all-new platform, the Prius leads the way in hybrids. Are you ready to be a pioneer, too? The Mirai is at the forefront. And, Toyota has opened its thousands of patents, so other manufacturers will be offering their own hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, helping to make the case for more fueling stations. It’s an  exciting time.

 

 

Chevrolet Volt – The Perfect Compromise

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The all-new Chevrolet Volt may be the best solution today for moving to greener driving to reduce CO2 emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. It’s an electric vehicle (EV) without the drawbacks.

The many advantages of driving an EV include smooth, quiet motoring, minimal service requirements, and the feeling that you’re part of the solution and not the problem.

The downsides of EVs include limited range and the long time it takes to recharge the batteries.

Regular hybrid vehicles combine gas engines with electric motors to extend your fuel out over more miles, but you never plug in. Plug-in hybrids provide a small all-electric range before becoming regular hybrids.

The Chevrolet Volt, which debuted for 2011, was designed as an electric car with a range extender: The Voltec electric drive system. You could charge it up, drive about 35 miles, and then its small gasoline engine kicked in to generate electricity to keep the motor moving the car along.

The totally redesigned 2016 Volt continues on this path, with huge upgrades. Generation one owners gave GM plenty of feedback. Gone are the hard plastic panels with haptic touch controls. The styling is in line with current Chevy gasoline vehicles, like the midsize Malibu. The new car looks great inside and out, with colors and metallic trim befitting a fancier vehicle.

What’s most important, though, is that the new Volt offers an electric range of 53 miles. In a week with my Mosaic Black Metallic test car, I drove in silent, serene full-electric mode for all of my commuting (18 miles each way to work and home), and all of my normal errands. On only two occasions did I need the extended range. The combined range for gas and electric is 420 miles.

When my Volt switched over to gasoline, the instrument panel indicated I had moved from battery power. I could hardly hear the engine when it engaged, and even when the battery was depleted, the car sometimes used it with power generated from braking.

An electric car is rated for MPGe. MPGe assigns a comparative value to the efficiency of different EVs, but it also stands alongside MPG. My week with the Volt generated 118.1 MPGe. The EPA’s ratings are 106 MPGe for electric mode and 42 MPG for gasoline (combined city/highway numbers). Green scores are 8 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas.

Compare that to a standard Prius, which gets 52 combined MPG. The Chevrolet Cruze, the Volt’s gasoline cousin, earns 35 MPG combined, itself a laudable number.

The electric motor puts out 149 horsepower (111 kW), and a strong 294 lb.-ft. of torque. The gas engine generates only 75 horsepower, but it’s meant to charge the car rather than drive it. Chevy claims an 8.4-second 0-60 time. I felt confident in it driving uphill on a winding road in the rain.

The Volt comes in LT and Premier levels. My Premier tester flaunted attractive two-tone interior with tan inserts and silvery trim winding around the dash. The center screen is nicely rendered and there’s a jaunty blue plastic top on the “shift” knob. The rear seat now offers a center position, but there’s not a whole lot of legroom for that person. The hatchback is convenient, although it’s a high liftover.

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The Drive Mode switch lets you configure the Voltec system. Use Normal mode for maximum efficiency, Sport mode to take advantage of the bountiful electric motor torque, or Mountain mode for maximum power on steep upgrades. The fourth mode, Hold, lets you preserve your battery charge and use only gasoline.

Regenerative braking is crucial for hybrids and EVs, but the Volt lets you prime the pump with a paddle on the left side of the steering wheel for “Regen on Demand.” Use it like a brake, while banking charge. With practice, you can drive almost without using the brake pedal at all.

The Volt has its own personality, with a greeting sound and a “wind down” tone it makes when you turn it off. Because the electric motor is silent when you start the car, the blue Power button is more like turning on your iPhone than turning over your engine.

The LT starts at $34,820 and the Premier, with heated leather seats, a Bose stereo system, and more, starts at $39,270. My tester listed for $39,850. Various leasing options, plus some Federal and State rebates, can make these cars easier to drive home.

While an all-electric car may be the ideal way to go, it’s not practical for everyone today. But if you want a compact car that’ll do pretty much everything and let you drive electric most of the time, the Volt is a great solution.

Enough Charge for that Extra Trip

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Part of the deal with using your EV for daily commuting is that you know you have enough charge to get home. But what if you need to take an extra side trip?

Yesterday, I got a chance to meet up with a favorite former boss–but it was 24 miles away–in the opposite direction from my house! I headed south on Interstate 101 from San Mateo to Santa Clara in precommute traffic with a full charge, and was pleased to see 85 miles on the range counter sit there for quite a while. Even with mostly free-flowing traffic, I got to my destination with a comfortable cushion.

Heading north along Interstate 880 later, I completed my 33-mile homeward trip and pulled into the driveway with 22 miles left on the clock. Whew.

What this meant was twofold: First, I had enough to get where I needed to go, and second, I had to make sure to put my Fiat 500e on the home charger ASAP to be sure there’d be plenty of charge for tomorrow. And that’s what I did.

While the major downside to most EVs is limited range, it doesn’t have to be a big deal–if you charge when you can, and for the longer trips–take your other car. It didn’t limit me yesterday, for which I’m grateful.

 

 

EVs and their Sociable Drivers

Call it a cult, but EV drivers, I’ve found, are a sociable bunch. We love to talk about our cars, look at each other’s rides, and learn more about the EVs we don’t have yet, such as the Tesla Model 3, which has received more than 325,000 $1,000 deposits in just a few days.

I like to group my little Fiat, Fidelio, with other cars, too. Then, I talk with the owners. Sometimes, I just park him near the other EVs and snap away. Here are a few recent shots.

This one just happened – One Fiat, two Nissan Leafs, in repose.

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And for good measure, here’s Fidelio with one  of his Tesla friends–also at the office.

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And, tonight, three members of the Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra brought their cars together for a photo after a two-hour rehearsal. From left to right, Esteban’s 2016 Tesla, Bev’s 2016 Chevy Volt, and Fidelio, my 2016 Fiat 500e.

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They’re lucky. Although we all just started driving these shiny new cars, they get to keep theirs. But Fidelio has to go  back to the fleet in 10 days. I’m sad. When you live with an EV for months, it grows on you. The smooth, quiet ride, the silent cabin where the radio plays so clearly. The never stopping at the gas station. The torque.

The Tesla and Fiat 500e are pure electrics, while the Volt–in the center above–is a plug-in hybrid. But the Volt will go up to 53 miles on a charge, so if you don’t travel too far, you can use it as an electric car virtually all the time. In fact, Bev tells me that the new Volt will burn off the gas automatically if it gets too old!