PHEV or not PHEV – That Is the Question

Why I’m resuming testing cars that are not pure EVs.

By Steve Schaefer

2020 Niro PHEV

On April 25th of this year, with COVID-19 causing massive lockdowns and cars sitting parked, the skies around the world cleared up! This happy and unexpected news inspired me to declare to the world, in this blog, the following:

I have decided, after 28 years of automotive testing and writing, that I will now test and review only pure, all-electric vehicles. It completes the move away from testing gasoline-only cars that I made after my Climate Reality Leadership Training in August of 2018.

This bold, emotionally fueled statement meant I was giving up on hybrids, including the plug-in ones with chargeable batteries.

Well, since then, I have tested a single car—the delightful if range-impaired Mini Cooper SE. I’ve also had time to think about what is likely to happen in the 2020s. The fact is, regardless of how much I love EVs, barring some miracle yet to happen, they are not going to constitute 100 percent of new car sales anytime soon, except perhaps in Norway. In my home country, the United States of America, there will still be some people who choose not to drive electric, and there presumably will be some manufacturers willing to indulge them if profits can be made.

We don’t need a 100% electric fleet by 2030, as wonderful (and clean and quiet) as that sounds. We need a 50% electric fleet, with an eventual movement to 100% electric new vehicles, with the older ones eventually dwindling away as they are retired or massively disappearing if a program can be devised to do that.

Based on this line of reasoning, there is no reason why some people can’t opt for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) now instead of BEVs if they need them. And why would they need them? Perhaps they don’t have their own roof for solar and worry about access to public charging. Perhaps they need to drive long distances periodically, which in 2020 only a gas vehicle can do without stops that last under 10 minutes.

Although PHEVs are still saddled with not only a motor but a gasoline engine, fuel tank, radiator, and all that, because they have a chargeable battery, if driven locally within their much shorter range, they can serve nicely as EVs most of the time, only sipping fuel when needed. And that is MUCH better than a gasoline burner, or even a regular hybrid, which switches from gas to battery and back again and can’t be charged. Even a regular hybrid delivers twice the fuel economy of an internal combustion engine (ICE) car, which essentially takes half a car off the road. A PHEV can remove 90%, once again, depending on use.

Do I want to promote PHEVs, then? I’d rather entice someone to buy a BEV, because they are so silent and clean and wonderful, but realistically, we can still have some PHEVs in the fleet in the ‘20s until electric/gas price parity is achieved, the charging network is built out, and the 400-mile battery is invented. Instead of “all-or-nothing” thinking, this means looking at the overall goal of cutting our CO2 emissions in half by 2030 and finding a workable strategy for eventually making the fossil fuel industry history.

Yes, I would like to have a few more test cars, too, although I don’t need one every week. Many exciting electrified vehicles are arriving in the next couple of years that are plug-in hybrids, and it would be a shame for me to miss out on testing those cars.  I need to be able to guide readers to the best transportation solution for them now, and in the future.

For a great example of the wonders of plug-in hybrids, see this story on the Kia Niro PHEV by freelance auto writer Mike Hagerty. I’ll plan to serve up a few PHEV stories myself once I let my test fleets know my change of heart. Stay tuned.

America, at 243, is Slow to Adopt EVs

By Steve Schaefer

2013 Nissan LEAF

Red Generation 1 LEAF

Two days ago, I received an email from Plug In America, inviting me to join in the First Annual Independence Day EV Count. Modeled after the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, it’s meant to be a non-scientific study of what’s going on around you.

I’ve hosted and attended the group’s Drive Electric Week events and they’re a great organization, so why not?

Today, July 4th, after lunch, I decided to join the EV count. I needed the exercise anyway, so  I grabbed my trusty pad and a ballpoint pen and headed out into my Castro Valley, California neighborhood. It was clear and in the low 70’s–perfect.

The rules of the EV Count are simple:

  1. Walk or drive in your neighborhood and count all the cars you see
  2. Note the all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids
  3. Tally it up, fill out the online form, and send it in

The group doesn’t include regular plugless hybrids (their name is Plug In America, after all), but I noted them anyway, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

I walked a loop that I often take to add a couple thousand steps to my Fitbit. I started out well, as I could count my personal Chevrolet Bolt EV and the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid I’m currently testing right away. However, as I walked and wrote, the bad news piled up.

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White Generation 2 LEAF

When I returned home and tallied up the numbers, I had:

  • 118 cars total
  • 3 EVs (my Bolt and two Nissan LEAFs)
  • 2 plug-in hybrids
  • 7 regular hybrids

That’s pretty disappointing.

Perhaps Castro Valley is a little behind–I know I see more EVs in San Francisco, where I work. And it wasn’t a scientific study–just a small sample. But it means that I need to work harder to get the word out on the many benefits of EVs–and the necessity of stopping using fossil fuels now to help control the effects of the climate crisis.

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My Blue Bolt EV

In 2019, as the U.S. turns 243, we have a long way to go to significant EV adoption. At least in my neighborhood.

 

 

My Chevy Bolt EV is Finally Here!

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I ordered my Bolt EV on October 11, 2016. Today, January 8, 2017, I picked it up and drove it home in the rain. A little water wasn’t going to stop me from getting my blue baby.

Sometimes, when you get something you’ve been waiting for, there’s a letdown, but today things went fine and turned out exactly as I hoped they would. And thanks to Don Mays and the folks at Boardwalk Chevrolet in Redwood City, it was painless, too, although I was there for over three hours.

It’s a funny story, really. On Friday, I took my 1993 Plymouth van to the junkyard to be crushed for California’s old gas car buyback program. You can read about it here. On the way home, I got a call from Don, my Chevy salesman, letting me know that he wasn’t exactly sure when the Bolt would land at the dealership–but it would be soon. I had been hoping that by finally getting rid of my ancient ride, I’d clear cosmic space in the universe for the Bolt. And–it turned out I was right. At around 4 p.m. Friday I got the call. The truck carrying my car had just arrived (it’s one of those blue ones).

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I knew that Sunday was going to be stormy, but we got up and waited for the phone call. At 11:12 a.m., just after the dealership opened, Don called and said my car was ready for pickup. So off we went–my wife kindly offered to drive me over.

When we arrived, we saw two Kinetic Blue Bolts in front. I checked the window sticker and identified mine. It was on the charger. Apparently, when they brought it over from the service area it had just 90 miles on the battery–not full–but it gathered some more while it sat there waiting for us.

Of course, there’s paperwork to do when you lease a car, but it was easy enough. Interestingly, they ask you to sign an agreement regarding whether to mount a front license plate bracket or not. Apparently this is a big deal to Corvette buyers (who don’t want the holes drilled). I personally expect to wear my plates like the law requires, so I just said, “sure.”

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The lease process was straightforward. They give you a $2,500 “lease cash” payment, and then take off the Federal $7,500 off the lease price (since I’m not the buyer). You can request what you want the monthly payment to be and how much you want to put down to get it. As it turns out, I had planned to put down a substantial cash amount to lower the monthly payment. I ended up giving them $9,000 ($10,000 minus my $1,000 deposit) and ended up with a $335 a month payment, including taxes. Of course, there’s no January payment–it’s included. I’ll be receiving a $2,500 rebate from the State of California (eventually), and I’m getting $1,000 from junking the van, so it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Don brought my dripping wet car into the dealership so we could get pictures (like the one at the top). The car was nicely prepped–shiny and clean. The interior was spotless and with just 3 miles on the odometer. There were even a few pieces of protective plastic still on the door handles. I’ve smelled a lot of new cars as a journalist, but this is the “freshest” of them all so far.

I’m glad I chose the lighter interior. All cars receive the white band across the dash and onto the doors, and white console trim, but mine is light gray on the doors and light gray and white on the leather seats, so it feels bright and airy in there. The other choice is dark gray and light gray. Here’s a cool design element–at night, a blue line outlines the lower dash.

New cars have a lot of electronics in them, and EVs especially require some explanation. I sat in the car while Don showed me some features. While he installed my temporary registration and removed my window sticker, I set up my OnStar account–a GM benefit for safety and turn-by-turn directions, among other things. The SiriusXM radio came right on, as you’d expect.

The Bolt EV has bright, colorful displays in the instrument panel and dash center, so it’s easy to know what’s going on. They put on a little video celebration when you first touch the glowing Start button. Then, the screens appear. They are certainly more interesting to look at than the Ford Sync3 system, which works fine but is more of a monochrome blue. The instrument panel has a large digital speedometer, and the slim typeface is quite stylish.

The steering wheel has some controls on the back, like Chrysler/Fiat products, with volume on the right. You can select audio presets on the left side of the wheel. The front of the right side of the wheel has a set of arrows to make selections from a complex menu of inforation and settings, too.

The back of the left side of the steering wheel contains a paddle to initiate regenerative braking–kind of like putting your foot on the brake. This can add to your range and give your foot a rest.

When the lease process was done, I pulled away, and everything felt right. I cruised along the freeway and through the city of Hayward on my way home. I then took my new car on a couple of errands around town. Nobody noticed it, as far as I can tell, but it was dark and rainy out there.

So, my new Bolt EV is finally parked in my driveway, and my adventure has begun. Stay tuned.

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Farewell to My Old Plymouth Van

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To make way for my brand new, all-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV, I’m sending my old reliable standby car to the crusher as part of California’s Vehicle Buy Back Program. Yes, my 1993 Plymouth Voyager is not long for this world.

I’m not really sad about it, but I do feel a little twinge of nostalgia. My older son drove this car in college, and it was his mom’s and stepdad’s family car before that. I have all the records to prove it was purchased brand new with 43 miles on it on April 30, 1993. They took good care of it so I could neglect it and it would still run fine in 2017.

Of course, the Bolt EV is a great upgrade for me–tomorrow’s technology in place of yesterday’s, with all of the latest safety, entertainment, convenience and planet-preserving features. I’ll be cruising in the 2017 Motor Trend Car of the Year–the 2017 Green Car of the Year, and likely the North American Car of the Year (we’ll find out in the next few days).

But this dirt cheap old van doesn’t really deserve to die. As long as I drive it once in a while to keep the battery charged, put in a few gallons of gas and add air to the tires, it’s a fine fill-in car for when my upright bass won’t fit in the test Mazda Miata. It was invaluable the time I needed to haul a 4 x 4-foot oil painting from the gallery to my living room. Registration is about as cheap as it gets and insurance costs are negligible.

As someone who’s always testing a new car, for me to drive around in a 23-year-0ld minivan with a rusted roof and hood and visible spiderwebs on the mirror supports is a different experience. Nobody smiles at you at the traffic light. I feel like Jed Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies.

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But despite its neglected exterior, the metallic blue van, with only 92,000 miles on it, is actually pretty pleasant inside. Sure there are some stains on the rugs, but the tall, chairlike front buckets are very comfortable in blue plush cloth. The look is 1990s utilitarian, but it seems appropriate here. The bulky pull-out cupholders, the temperature sliders on the climate system, the tiny buttons on the aftermarket FM radio. And there’s room for seven people!

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The 3.3-liter V6 under the hood of this Sport model hums contentedly when you press the accelerator–it doesn’t buzz like a four-cylinder. The low window line, compared to today’s tall crossovers, provides a panoramic view of traffic around you.

As an SE model, my Voyager has a leather steering wheel – and  check out that classic set of full gauges (working oil pressure and battery charge meters on top)! Airbags were still in their early stages, so the pads are big, too. Like those little horn buttons in thumb position?

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My Sport Wagon shows off its subtly styled alloy wheels and high-profile tires (yeah, the rims aren’t big or fancy, but they ain’t hubcaps, either).

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I took my van out for a few errands today. It zipped along just like usual. You can’t see the rust from this angle. The paint on the vertical surfaces is actually pretty decent.

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Colorful bumper stickers date from my son’s college days. I’ve enjoyed retaining them on my car.

This is a second-generation Chrysler Corporation minivan, an enhanced version of the original ’84 model. Chrysler invented the minivan in the early 1980s and dominated the field for years. Now, Toyota and Honda do. But, of course, today is also the era of the crossover SUV, so minivans are less hip, anyway. Although, as it turns out, the next “cool” minivan is the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid–my car’s descendant–which is the first of its kind.

But it’s time to move on. Sacrificing our funky, high-polluting old cars is what we need to do en masse to cut CO2 to moderate the effects of climate change. I know that sacrificing an old gas burner for an EV will make a very tiny impact, but we need to do it everywhere. And we need to have clean power plants, too. And we need to share rides. And we need to do a lot of other things. But now, it’s time to say goodbye to an old friend, and welcome a new one.

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