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.

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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.

Should I Get My EV Now or Wait?

Recently, with lease deals on EVs running at around $79/month (with a few thousand dollars down), I’ve been thinking about picking up one to use when I’m not testing other cars. After my three-month loan of a sweet little Fiat 500e earlier this year, I want to drive electric today, both because  it’s the right thing to do for the environment, but also to practice what I preach. Advocating for a move to carbon-free transportation is fine, but sometimes you have to walk the walk, too.

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I believe that the upcoming Chevrolet Bolt, with its 200-mile range, vast dealer network, and attractive purpose-built EV design, will be a game changer for the non-wealthy like me. But I suspect that there will be no deals on Bolts, at least a first. There’s plenty of pent-up demand and they’ll have the only game in town–for a while, at least.

So, I’m focusing on the Volkswagen e-Golf again, as well as the Fiat 500e and maybe the Kia Soul EV.

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The process of elimination removed Tesla from consideration right off the top. It’s way out of my price range, and there are no cheap deals to be had anyway. Others cut from the list include the Ford Focus. It’s a regular car that’s been electrified, and has only a 76-mile range. There’s the worthy and pioneering Nissan Leaf, which was built as an EV from scratch, but is looking long in the tooth with minimal changes since its 2011 debut. The availability of a bigger battery with 107 miles of range in the 2016 model is a small consolation. The Chevrolet Spark EV is cute and has great torque, but it’s kind of tiny. The Mercedes-Benz B250e and BMW i3 are appealing, in different ways, but are not as affordable as the three vehicles I mentioned at the top of this paragraph, if low price of admission is the goal.

In any case, is it time to grab something now or to wait? I’m struggling with impatience but also with the knowledge that as with all things technological, the next improvement is right around the corner. You know that when you take home that new laptop, next week there’ll be one with a better screen or more memory or some amazing new feature.

Here’s what you get if you wait. The new Focus is going to jump to 107 miles of range with the ’17s. The all-new Hyundai Ioniq is arriving this fall with 110 miles of range. The Bolt looms ahead appealingly. The Kia Niro will offer a hybrid in a crossover shape–and perhaps a pure EV someday. What will the next Leaf be able to do? We’re on the edge of a whole new generation of attractive options.

To top it off, as I entertain a deal on the ’16 e-Golf with its 83-mile range, I just read that the ’17 is supposed to get about 125 miles of range with a new, larger battery. So, suddenly waiting a few months seems like a great idea, as long as I don’t need the car right now.

The only down side is that the cheap lease deals may dry up once the next gen cars are out. Who really believes that a $79/month lease is realistic in 2016, anyway? It’s just a way to sweeten the deal on a car that retails in the $30,000-plus vicinity and has limited range. The  companies are willing to move them out at a loss or minimal profit just to comply with regulations and maybe pick up some green cred for doing so.

Perhaps, if you’re really eager, you could take advantage of a deal now on the shortest lease term you can get (24 months?), and save up for the big transition two years from now, when you may be able to snag a Tesla Model 3 that someone ordered on spec or that fell through the cracks. Or, grab a second- or third-year Bolt with the all the bugs fixed. And the new Leaf will be out by then.

As an EV cheerleader, and soon-to-be participant, that may be the best way to get in now at minimal outlay and plan for a long, enjoyable electric car future.

But I remain perplexed. It does feel like sooner is better for the earth, but I want to have the best car for me, too.