One Great Year with My Bolt EV

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On a rainy Sunday, January 8, 2017, I went to my Chevrolet dealer to pick up the Kinetic Blue Chevrolet Bolt EV I’d ordered on October 11, 2016. One year later, with 9,952 miles on the clock, the car has turned out to be everything I’d hoped for.

It’s been a great commuter, and I got to drive it to see my granddaughters 85 miles away without having to stop to charge. It hauls all my musical gear with ease. It has been completely reliable. And, it’s fun to drive, too.

Read a complete rundown on my Bolt EV’s first birthday on Clean Fleet Report.

 

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Chevy Bolt Gets a 238-mile Range!

Today, Chevrolet released the official EPA range for the new Chevrolet Bolt all-electric vehicle. It’s 238 miles–more than what was advertised earlier, and enough to put all the other EVs in the dust! Yeah, you can spend three times that amount for a Tesla, but in the world of regular earth-loving folks, the Bolt is set to change the story. And, with the newly updated website, you can now see the models and colors available and a lot more information.

Price is still not official, but they’re talking about $37,500 before the Federal and California rebates, so it could be a $30K car.

I personally can’t wait to order mine in brilliant blue!

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Now, we also know that the Bolt, like the Volt, will come in two levels–LT and Premier. Want leather seats and shinier wheels? The Premier it is. You also get roof rails, heated front and rear seats, various life-saving alerts, and more. The website lists the differences.

Based on my experience with the Volt, the upper level car will look and feel better, but will cost several thousand dollars more. I just hope that I like the LT and that I can get it with DC fast charging. That method of charging lets you add about 90 miles to the battery in the time it takes to have a relaxing cup of coffee and a snack on the way somewhere.

In a related piece of good news, Volkswagen, BMW, and ChargePoint (the largest car charger company) have teamed up to build 95 Level 2 and DC charging stations as part of the  Express Charging Corridors Initiative along the East and West Coasts. For me in California, that means Highway 5 and 1 between Portland and San Diego. Back east, it’s between Boston and Washington, DC. That’ll go a long way to helping folks with EVs with 90 mile ranges get out and see the country. Of course, the Bolt, Teslas, and upcoming 200-mile cars like the next Leaf, will become even more worth owning.

Chevy now has a new EV-themed site, Chevyevlife.com, that explains about living with an electric car. After all, they are going to have three models to sell soon, including the Bolt, the fine new 2016/2017 Volt plug-in hybrid,and the Malibu Hybrid. The tiny Spark, having blazed the modern EV trail for the brand, has quietly exited the building.

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.

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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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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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.