Polestar2 — Go EV the Scandinavian Way

By Steve Schaefer

Clean, simple, and with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

If you see a Polestar2 parked along the street or hear it roll silently by, you’re forgiven if you don’t know what it is. You will notice that it’s a handsome, premium-grade midsize car that looks like a tall sedan (it’s actually a hatchback).

The secret is that Polestar is an electric performance brand from Volvo and its Chinese owner, Geely Holding. It was established in 2017 and is based in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Volvo has been for a long time.

I enjoyed a long weekend with a Polestar 2, and it certainly makes a great first and lasting impression in a market segment that is starting to grow—and will soon be full of choices.

The car is a “2” because it was preceded by the “1,” which is an electric performance hybrid GT, with a six-figure price tag and a limited output of 500 units per year over the next three years.

A High Tech Customer Experience

If you’re thinking, “this sounds like a Swedish Tesla,” you’re getting the idea. By taking what could be “Volvo’s EV model” and breaking it out as a standalone brand, Volvo and Geely are promoting exclusivity while creating a high-tech customer experience. From my experience, it’s working.

The Silicon Valley Polestar Space is the latest place to see the new vehicles.

The vehicles will be sold online, and also shown off at strategically located “Polestar Spaces,” where you can browse in a minimalist, Danish modern showroom with non-commissioned salespeople to help you and get a feel for the cars before placing your order. There are already Polestar Spaces in New York City and Los Angeles, and there are now two in the San Francisco Bay Area. The newest Polestar Space just opened in Silicon Valley, at the Westfield Valley Fair at 2855 Stevens Creek Boulevard. There’s a second location in Corte Madera, in Marin County.

Polestar also offers a convenient home delivery and service program, allowing customers who live within 150 miles of the Valley Fair Space, which includes those living in San Francisco and the Monterey Bay Peninsula, to have a new car delivered to their door, as well as complimentary roundtrip transportation for future servicing. 

Good Looking Lines

The Polestar2 makes a fine first impression, with its smooth flanks and chiseled edges, open mouth with black-square-filled “grille,” and slices of taillamps at the rear. The Polestar logo looks like two boomerangs and is not at all like the familiar Volvo ironmark.

In a world obsessed with crossovers and SUVs, this is a car that looks like a tall sedan but actually provides hatchback practicality, including a fold-up panel for grocery bags that includes hooks and a strap.

Keep those groceries from spilling.

Test Runs on Freeway and Back Roads

I tested the car with two trips—one primarily freeway and the other on my local, beautiful back roads. In each case, the car acquitted itself athletically and in great comfort, as expected and hoped. The freeway jaunt was to San Rafael, in Marin County, which meant open freeways, bridge crossings, and a short test loop through town, where I showed off the car’s rocket acceleration to my son. A BMW owner, he is a possible future Polestar buyer, which made this a demo ride and reinforced my positive impressions.

Backroad jaunt showed sharp reflexes and taut steering.

The backroad jaunt is where I recently took the all-new Ford Mustang Mach-E—a competitor—and the Polestar2 showed its sharp reflexes and balanced handling around the bends. EVs benefit from a low center of gravity, and the 2’s steering was taut and the assist felt natural. I later found the screen on the center panel where you can configure the performance settings and saw that it was set up for “sporty,” which made sense. I guess I was driving “sporty” on the freeway, as well.

Plentiful Power

The Polestar2 is a potent beast. The Launch Edition features two motors, one up front and one in the rear, powered by a 78-kilowatt hour battery. This all adds up to 408 horsepower and 487 pound-feet of torque, good for a pulse-raising zero-to-60 run in under five seconds. Range is 233 miles, which is good, if not the best in the market.

The Polestar 2 features one pedal driving—a favorite of mine and many other EV drivers—where thanks to regenerative braking, you use only the accelerator to move forward or slow down (even to a full stop). Of course, the brake pedal is right there when you need it, but in normal driving you can ignore it. The car offers three drive modes for regenerative braking (Off, Low, Standard), along with on or off settings for creep mode (acts like a “normal” automatic). It could stop and go with pinpoint accuracy with the “Standard” setting.

High Tech Infotainment

As an EV, the Polestar2 is a silent traveler, and the time on the road gave me the chance to test what is the world’s first in-vehicle application of an infotainment system powered by Android with Google apps and services built-in. As the setup was done already, all I did was say, “Hey, Google, play Bluegrass,” and the friendly female voice said, “I’m choosing Indie Bluegrass from Spotify,” and that was that. I also tested Google for navigation and asking for my home address produced a large map on the center screen and turn-by-turn voice directions.

Inside, the Polestar2 shows its Volvo origins. The lines are drawn with a brilliant, clean, and slightly cold aesthetic, and materials are matte and, according to the press info, it’s a fully vegan interior with the WeaveTech fabric and reconstructed wood trim. The ambiance isn’t overtly luxurious, but the traditional super supportive Volvo seats are right there with multiple adjustments and the fat, leather-wrapped wheel is nice to hold.

The 11-inch center panel screen is smaller than a Tesla’s, but Polestar parent Volvo has developed a beautiful and practical touchscreen interface. The home screen is quartered into maps, Phone, Driver Performance, and Music, but you can swipe to lots of different views, including the settings pages, where you can configure your driving experience.

Charging and Efficiency

Enquiring minds always want to know about charging. I used my solar-panel-powered Level 2 (240V) home charger, but if you’re on the road and want to top off quickly, DC fast charging takes about 40 minutes to get you to 80% at 150 kilowatts. It’ll take eight hours to refill the battery from 0 to 100 percent using Level 2 charging (perfect for overnight or a workday). If you just plug in to standard a 120V household outlet, you’d better give it 22 hours. That’s pretty normal for 2021.

The EPA gives this all-electric car ratings of 96 City, 88 Highway, and 92 Combined for MPGe (Miles per Gallon electric). Use that number to compare with other electric vehicles. Of course, the EPA “green” scores are 10 for both Smog and Greenhouse Gas. Any emissions for an EV come not from a tailpipe but from manufacturing, transportation, and how the electricity to move it is produced. These should diminish as more and more of the grid uses power from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, and as the manufacturers themselves use green energy—some, including GM, already do.

High tech treats include the absence of a start button. Just carry the chunky key fob in your pocket and walk up to the car. Open the door and sit down. Pull the stylish ring-shaped shift knob into D or R and the car moves. Leaving is the same thing. Put it in P (Park), open the door, step out, close the door, and walk away. You can press “Lock” on the digital key fob if that makes you feel more secure.

This is a premium vehicle, and the window sticker shows it. My test car, in “Moon” metallic, started at $59,900, and with $1,200 extra for the paint and $1,300 for destination (it’s shipped from its Chinese factory), came to $62,400.

Competitors

And this brings up a point. Who’s the customer, and what makes the Polestar2 stand out? The obvious direct competitor is the Tesla Model Y (if you want the hatchback capability) or the Model 3. Teslas have the advantage of the supercharger network, at this point, although Polestar is affiliating with ChargePoint. Tesla offers the same kind of minimalism as the Polestar2. I haven’t yet driven a Model Y, but compared to other Teslas I’ve sampled, the Polestar2 feels like a traditional car, with a more elaborate instrument panel and a more developed interior design language.

One new and more affordable option is the Mustang Mach-E, but the personality difference is substantial. If the Polestar2 is a Tesla for Volvo enthusiasts, the Mach-E is a first EV for muscle car fans. With its exuberant styling inside and out and leftward running horse logo, the Mustang is competitive with the Polestar2 only in its EV performance.

Matching the Polestar in power and range is the Jaguar I-PACE. However, the base S model is already $10,000 more expensive than the Polestar2, although the interior ambiance is a bit fancier. The Audi e-tron is another luxury competitor, but I haven’t had any seat time in it yet. Mercedes-Benz is rolling out its EQ models and that brand has huge luxury equity. Ones to watch include the upcoming BMW i4 and recently announced Kia EV6, but you can’t buy one of those yet. New electric vehicles like the VW ID.4 are worthy but can’t touch the Polestar2 for sheer performance. 

Time will tell with the Polestar brand, but the Polestar2 is competitive and hits all the right buttons. The next model, the 3, will be a coupe marketed between the 1 and the 2 in price. There is also the stunning Precept concept that is slated to appear sometime in the future. For more affordable EVs, the Volvo brand has big plans to expand its lineup, and already offers the XC40 Recharge crossover.

It’s an exciting time to be an EV shopper, and it’s just going to get better.

BMW Takes the Middle Path to Electrification

By Steve Schaefer

BMW EVs — note upcoming i4 in the middle, MINI in the foreground.

The auto industry has been slowly transitioning toward battery-powered transportation, but each company has its own way of doing it. BMW, which jumped in early with the all-electric i3 and plug-in hybrid i8 in 2014, has been slow to move to pure electrics, but now offers plug-in hybrid options on several popular models, including the midsize 530e sedan and X5 xDrive45e crossover, which I recently tested.

Three Different Paths a Company Can Take to Move Towards Electric

Before diving into the two Bimmers, let’s look at the different ways that car companies can approach the gasoline to electricity transition, from all-in to not quite ready yet, or the middle path. I’m just hitting high spots here to make the point.

All-in is how Tesla, a California startup, has done it since day one. First, they electrified a small two-seat sports car on a borrowed Lotus platform. Then, they took what they learned and introduced their mass market flagship Model S sedan. The smaller, more affordable Model 3 sedan and Model Y hatchback followed, putting Teslas—every one all-electric—into the hands of a much wider clientele.

The middle path recognizes that electric cars are not profitable yet, but companies like General Motors, Ford, Nissan, and Volkswagen don’t want to be left out in the future. Things started rolling about a decade ago, when Nissan bravely introduced the all-electric LEAF and GM brought out the clever Volt plug-in hybrid. Ford and VW electrified existing compact hatchbacks, replacing engines with motors in the compact Focus and Golf, respectively. There are other examples, such as Mercedes-Benz’s B-class EV and more recent offerings from Audi.

Things have moved forward for the mainstream companies over the decade. GM debuted the all-new Bolt EV four years ago, and recently announced its all-electric future, with some desirable cars in the works, from GMC/Hummer and Cadillac as well as the Bolt EUV crossover. Ford is debuting its beautiful and powerful Mustang now and has put a hybrid in the F-150 pickup, with a full EV version on the way. VW is finally rolling out the excellent ID.4 crossover. The Nissan Ariya crossover is imminent. So, there’s progress.

Another way to take the middle path is to avoid EVs but proliferate hybrids. Toyota has taken this approach, spreading its pioneering Prius hybrid technology across its model mix, including the Avalon, Camry, and Corolla sedans and RAV4 and Highlander crossovers.  

A few years ago, the Korean brands introduced the Hyundai Ioniq and Kona and Kia Niro models that let you choose hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or battery electric flavors. Both companies have recently committed to full lines of EVs over the next few years.

On the “just getting started” side you’ll find worthy manufacturers like Subaru and Mazda, who don’t have the cash to build an all-electric car. However, they can collaborate with big companies and join the party eventually, as Subaru has already done with Toyota on its Crosstrek Hybrid. Mazda has just introduced an electric version of its MX30 crossover, but it’s not available in the U.S yet. It will be Mazda’s first EV in America when it arrives.

BMW’s Plug-In Hybrids

Getting back to BMW, they have their plug-in hybrids and plans for new all-electric models, including the i4 sedan and iX crossover, and currently offer the iX3 small electric crossover in Europe. Today, you can contact your American BMW retailer and buy or lease a 530e or X5 xDrive45e plug-in hybrid. I drove both over the last few weeks.

Unlike Tesla, BMW has no identity to establish. Since the 1970’s they’ve built a reputation as “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” and while that may not really apply anymore, the brand still retains a lot of desirability and panache. So, while they slowly introduce new members of their electric “I” vehicles, they have taken popular models and cleaned them up a bit.

Both the X5 xDrive 45e and the 530e plug-in hybrids retain gasoline engines and the components that support them, like radiators, motor oil, and exhaust systems, while installing a motor, battery and an extra port to charge it. But unlike standard hybrids, which have small batteries that charge only when you step on the brake pedal, a plug-in hybrid lets you actively charge your car like an EV—for a limited range.

The 530e has an official EPA electric range of 21 miles; the larger battery on the X5 provides 30. What this means in real life is that if you’re willing to plug in your car  regularly, for most driving you can go electrically, since statistically, most people don’t drive more than 40 miles a day.

The upsides include lower CO2 emissions, smooth, silent driving, and no range anxiety. Once you get past the local electric range, the car converts into hybrid mode and uses gasoline or electricity as efficiently as it can. That means on a freeway trip, if you’re not in stop-and-go traffic, you’ll be using mostly gasoline, while in town, with frequent braking, you may be mostly electric, even if the electrons you put into the battery overnight are used up.

The X5 xDrive45e Crossover

Second generation X5 xDrive is more powerful and has more than twice the electric range.

My Arctic Grey Metallic test unit came packed with extras, making it a seriously luxurious ride. Inside, it wore the ivory White Vernasca Leather—“non-animal-derived “SensaTec” is standard.

The 2021 X5 xDrive45e is a second-generation model, updated significantly from the previous X5 xDrive40e. A more powerful six-cylinder turbo engine replaces the 2.0-liter four from the old car, and the battery doubles in size to 24 kWh. That means you get up to 30 miles of electric-only range vs. just 12 before (I saw the gauge read “32”). That’s significant, because it means  a lot more of your local driving will be electric-powered.

The combined horsepower, with the electric motor, is 389 horsepower, a bump of 81 from the old car. Torque jumps as well, to 443 lb.ft., a rise of 111. That lets the 5,672-pound hauler sprint from 0 to 60 in just 5.3 seconds.

It takes four hours to charge the battery from empty to 80 percent and 5.3 hours to fill it to 100 percent using a level 2, 240-volt charger. Using standard household current takes considerably longer (13.3 and 17.7 hours respectively). As a plug-in hybrid, it will never need an emergency charging stop while traveling.

The crossover comes standard with BMW’s Intelligent xDrive all-wheel drive system and an eight-speed Sport Steptronic transmission. It’s smart enough to adjust for your route and driving situation. The double wishbone front and five-link rear suspension are designed for comfort as well as traction when surfaces are less than ideal. The two-axle air suspension balances loads.

The interior looks rugged and luxurious like a BMW crossover should. It features Live Cockpit Professional, with 12.3-inch screens for the instrument panel and in the middle of the dash, where you can control all the sophisticated BMW driving and entertainment options.

My test week was during a quiet February, and with nowhere to go, I took no long rides. But, with its gorgeous chairs, crystal shift knob, and sparkling trim, the car felt quite posh when I did.

Three Drive Modes

Choices–I picked Electric, but Hybrid is the default.

There are three drive modes—Hybrid, Electric, and Sport. Hybrid, the default, electronically monitors the route and the road and selects the most efficient or performance-oriented balance of gas or electrons. Electric—my choice—is selectable from a center console button, and I had to do that every time because of the default Hybrid setting.

The car can go up to a law-breaking 84 mph on electricity alone, so short freeway hops work just fine. On longer trips you’ll end up in Hybrid mode. If, for some reason, you want to storm back roads for fun, the Sport setting keeps the engine on all the time for extra power.

Since this is nominally an offroad vehicle, you can set five levels of ride height. Although I had no need to use this, it could come in handy for clearance when you leave the highway.

Fuel economy per the EPA is 50 MPGe when you’re using electricity and it drops way down to 20 mpg with gasoline.

The X5 xDrive45e base prices at $65,400, but my tester, loaded up with numerous options, plus $995 shipping from the Spartanburg, South Carolina factory, came to $81,695. That’s a lot, but it’s a lot of car, too.

The luxury crossover segment is becoming highly desirable these days—low slung sedans are no longer the rage. This car, with its rugged but sophisticated styling and pretty much anything you could want, will fill anyone’s needs and then some. As a plug-in hybrid, if it spends most of its time on local runs and gets charged up regularly, it will function as an EV much of the time. But with all-wheel drive and a gas engine, it will take you to the ski destination of your choice painlessly.

The 530e Sedan

7th generation 5 Series offers a plug-in hybrid, gets some visual tweaks for ’21.

The BMW 5 Series has enjoyed a long and happy life in the BMW lineup. The 2021 model marks the seventh generation of the “executive size” sedan that debuted in 1972. Larger than the compact 3 Series and smaller than the grand 7 Series, it’s perfect for any driving occasion.

The 530e brings plug-in hybrid power. While both the standard 530i and the 530e have 2.0-liter gas engines, the 530e gets an electric motor with 107 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, making the “e” more powerful, with a total of 288 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque. The “e” gets from 0-60 0.2 seconds faster as well, at 5.7 seconds.

While the EPA gives the 530i gas-only car fuel economy numbers of 25 City, 33 Highway, and 28 combined, the 530e gets 64 MPGe with electricity and gasoline and 26 miles per gallon with gas only. EPA Green scores are 7 for Smog and 8 for Greenhouse Gas.

The 12-kWh battery is tucked out of sight, but it does steal 4 cubic feet of trunk space, while adding weight that makes the 530e about 450 pounds heavier than the 530i.

However, it’s still the same 5 Series experience, except you can drive locally without burning gas! With 21 miles of range, the car functions as an electric car around town and for short freeway commutes. You can charge it up at home, at work, or while shopping at Whole Foods.

Option it Up the Way You Want it

My tester wore a brilliant Phytonic Blue Metallic and featured Ivory White Nappa leather within. BMW leather always smells nice and conveys a premium feel. My tester had a number of packages that added to the luxury and comfort. Driving Assistance Plus includes Extended Traffic Jam Assistant, which, as I am working from home, I didn’t get to try. The Shadowline Package adds extra lighting. The M Sport package brings performance and design upgrades, including variable sport steering, the M Sport suspension, special 19- or 20-inch upgraded rims, and an aerodynamic kit. The Parking Assistance Package would have made parking easy, if I had needed it. The Premium Package includes pleasures like a Harman-Kardon audio system and gesture control.

As with any BMW, you can go wild with optional features. My tester base priced at $57,200, but with options plus shipping came to an eye-opening $70,485. For comparison, the base price of the fossil-fuel-only 530i, pre-shipping, is $54,200, $3,000 less than the 530e.

All 5-Series models receive some subtle updates this year, including a larger, taller set of twin kidney grilles along with resculpted LED headlamps up front. Trapezoidal tailpipe finishers perk up the tail end. Inside, Live Cockpit gives you generous 12.3-inch instrument panel and dash center screens. This blends modern computer screen controls with some of the classic feel of the BMWs drivers have loved over the decades.

Most EVs, being silent, can surprise unsuspecting walkers. So, BMW offers Acoustic Protection for Pedestrians, which makes what BMW calls an “unmistakable sound” at up to 19 miles per hour to warn the inattentive.

The 530e does its electric driving subtly, but cruising in it in silence can put you in your happy place, even if it’s not for an extended time. But soon, you’ll be able to enjoy an all-electric midsize sedan from BMW—the i4. Stay tuned.

An Autumn Sampler of the Three Kinds of EVs

By Steve Schaefer

Photo courtesy DENISTANGNEYJR – GETTY IMAGES

Over the last few weeks, I’ve test driven all three types of battery-powered electric cars—full electric, plug-in hybrid, and hybrid. Frankly, with the pandemic and my decision to no longer test gas-only vehicles, I’ve had little chance to drive anything since March. However, I sampled a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid in the middle of November, spent 45 minutes on the last day of November driving the all-new, all-electric Volkswagen ID.4 crossover, and in my driveway sits a stunning BMW 330e plug-in hybrid.

If I had it my way, we’d all be driving gas-free electric cars today. But as we’ve seen lately, life throws you curveballs, and some things take a while longer to develop than we hoped. What’s most important is to set a clear direction and work towards the goal. In the case of the climate crisis, we have a limited amount of time to accomplish the task.

Yes, the climate crisis hasn’t gone away just because we’re in the middle of another immediate crisis.

Pure-electric, battery-powered cars don’t work well for every driver yet, which is why we need to have alternatives. That’s where hybrids and plug-in hybrids still have a role to play.

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

All new Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is for sedan lovers.

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is an all-new design that will suit anyone who still likes cars and is looking for a largish five-person sedan. Honda Accord and Toyota Camry owners, this means you! With its hybrid powertrain, the Sonata Hybrid earns up to 52 miles per gallon (Combined) per the EPA.

As with other hybrids, you never have to do anything except jump in, push Start, and go—no charging cables or plugs. Travel wherever you want, fill up at any gas station. You’ll find yourself there only half as often, of course. To have the most beneficial effect, you can drive gently, avoiding aggressive acceleration and hard braking. Regardless, if a hybrid replaces a standard gas sedan, it puts only half a car’s worth of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s not insignificant. Read my review on Clean Fleet Report.

Volkswagen ID.4 Battery Electric Crossover

All new ID.4 is perfect for America.

I had a masked, distanced 1-on-1 with the long-awaited Volkswagen ID.4 back in September. I got to look at it, sit in it, watch a PowerPoint, and chat with knowledgeable VW representatives. I was pretty impressed. Read my impressions on Clean Fleet Report.

The follow-up visit on November 30th was a real drive, and in the spirit of COVID-19 safety, I got a sanitized gleaming white preproduction car all to myself. They handed me a preset route map that took me through city traffic, freeway cruising and along empty, winding country roads.

The car was engaging to drive and was attractive out in the wild. The interior is up-to-the-minute stylish and airy. The ID.4 is VW’s second all-electric car in America, following the e-Golf, and is built on an all-new EV-specific platform. While the e-Golf, a motorized version of the popular gas version, could at best go 124 miles on a charge, the new ID.4 goes twice that far.

The e-Golf’s spiritual successor is actually the ID.3 hatchback, out in Europe and elsewhere already, but VW’s leaders wisely chose to give us a more spacious crossover in the U.S. of A., since that’s the kind of vehicle most of us in the States are buying. See my drive review of the new ID.4 on Clean Fleet Report.

BMW 330e Plug-in Hybrid

BMW’s Ultimate Driving Machine offers a partly electric option.

The BMW, in Alpine White, served as my ride to the ID.4 test, which was based out of a suburban VW dealership. As a plug-in hybrid, the BMW 330e uses an engine and a motor, and employs a much smaller battery than the all-electric VW, although its battery is larger than the one in the Sonata Hybrid. You plug the car in to charge, and it only takes a couple of hours at 240 volts (level 2) or overnight on regular household current (Level 1). The BMW is good for about 22 all-electric miles, so it’s perfect for local driving, such as commuting, shopping, and errands. When you take it on longer trips, it becomes a hybrid, using gas and electricity efficiently.

On my trip to the dealership for the ID.4 test, I set the car to “Electric” so it would use only electric power. When it ran out of juice, it automatically switched to “Hybrid” mode, informing me of the change on the large center screen. As my destination was 24 miles from home, I almost made it petrol free. If I had been able to use a charger at the dealership, I could have driven on battery power for most of the trip home. I’m pleased to say that the mostly gas-powered return trip was nearly as quiet as the electric leg of the trip, which shows that the gas engine is smooth and quiet, and that BMW has used plenty of sound insulation.

My second trip in the BMW was to spend a couple of hours rehearsing with my three bandmates, who, through careful planning, have become part of my COVID bubble. Because the drummer’s house is only 4.2 miles away, I was able to drive both ways without using any gasoline. That’s what makes plug-in hybrids so appealing—mostly electric driving, but never any range anxiety. The downside is that you may have the best of both worlds, but also must lug along the hardware of both words—engine + motor, battery + fuel tank, radiator, motor oil, etc. and occasionally take the car in for service on those components. Battery-electric cars have little service other than tire rotation.

I believe that people buy and love 3-Series BMWs because of the model’s long history as The Ultimate Driving Machine®, although it has become larger and less sprightly over the years, as most 45-year-olds tend to do. I drove my first BMW test car in 1992, shortly after I began my car column, and I was blown away. My older son enjoys his, and I’m hoping to move him into a 330e when his lease is up. While a hybrid can take half a car off the road, a plug-in hybrid, driven locally most of the time, can do much better.

The Bottom Line

With many auto manufacturers announcing big plans for EVs over the next few years, there will soon be a generous assortment of EVs in every category to choose from. Then, it’ll be up to consumers to buy or lease the cars over the next decade. Realistically, we won’t hit 100 percent EV penetration in new car sales by 2030, but we have to try—and it will accelerate once the marketplace is well stocked.

Yes, I’ve often wondered what we are going to do about all the perfectly good gas cars that will still be around. I foresee a massive recycling and repurposing operation, but they are not going to go away overnight. But we need to stop driving them.

Throwing down the gauntlet, the state of California, long a leader in clean transportation and higher fuel economy standards (and home of Tesla) has legislated that you won’t be able to sell or buy a new non-electric car in the state after 2035. That gives us 15 years to get the deal done. You can expect more states to follow, and perhaps a national mandate at some point. But the most powerful selling point will not be an appeal to saving the planet, but getting to drive a better, quieter, smoother, car that costs less to operate.

To support widespread EV adoption, we must build out a robust and widespread charging network and support home charging fed by rooftop solar panels where possible. We must work to ensure that the energy to power the fleet comes from 100 percent sustainable sources. This means no more coal and a swift reduction in natural gas for power plants. Solar and wind energy are already cheaper than the old school fuels, and with good battery storage, they can provide a steady and reliable energy supply for everybody. We also have other options, including mass transit and micromobility like scooters and e-bikes. And there’s always walking, if you’re close enough to your destination. No car is always cleaner than any car.

The move to replacing the internal-combustion car fleet not going to be simple or easy, but driving an electric car is going to become easier. I’m looking forward to the day when we’ll look around and suddenly realize that the EVs have taken over. The roads will be much quieter.

But first, let’s get ourselves out of this COVID-19 pandemic. Stay home, wear your mask when you go out, socially distance, and please stay healthy.

Why We Need Electric Cars Now

By Steve Schaefer

Taking delivery of my Chevrolet Bolt EV in January 2017.

This post talks about electric cars, the climate crisis, and actions we all can take to help solve it, including driving electric vehicles (EVs).

A Quick EV History

The Nissan LEAF paved the way in 2010.

The first mainstream EVs in the U.S appeared a decade ago, as the all-electric Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. Today, major companies, including GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai/Kia, and Mercedes-Benz, are proudly announcing their upcoming models (while continuing to sell lots of internal combustion vehicles).  

EV sales, juiced by Tesla’s success, are increasing every year, but still represent a small percentage of the market. Tesla, of course, sells only EVs. Many countries (and even some states) are passing legislation to support the phasing out of gasoline-powered cars in the next 10-15 years.

EV Benefits and Challenges

Electric cars have a lot to offer. They are smooth and quiet. Electric motors deliver all of their torque the moment they are working, so acceleration is amazing, and the low center of gravity from the battery pack helps them handle well.

Electric drivetrains contain a lot fewer parts, so there is much less to go wrong, and routine service is minimal (forget oil changes, tune-ups, radiator flushes, and even brake pad replacement thanks to regenerative braking).

EVs have no tailpipe emissions, but are not 100 percent clean, of course, because like all cars, their production uses energy from various sources. Some companies, including GM, are working to use renewable energy in their vehicle production. Some of the materials for today’s EV batteries must be mined, sometimes in dangerous and unsustainable ways. This issue must be addressed and solved.

There can be some inconveniences. EVs take longer to charge, and there are fewer places to charge them today than there are gas stations. Although the charging networks are expanding, this uncertainty can create “range anxiety,” although most people hardly ever drive more than about 40 miles a day, and modern EVs feature more than 200 miles of range. The ideal place to charge your EV is at home, but some people live in apartments. Some workplaces provide charging, as well. The charging network is being built out and should not be much of an issue at some point in the future.

Right now, there are fewer category and style choices in EVs than there are in the overall market. However, that will change over the next few years, as more companies roll out a range of attractive and powerful models. There are a number of affordable choices today, such as the Kia Niro, Chevrolet Bolt and the second-generation Nissan LEAF. On the luxury side, you can get an electric Porsche (Taycan), Jaguar (i-Pace) and Audi (eTron) now. Mercedes-Benz and BMW have exciting EV models on their way. There are many more.

The second-hand EV market is filled with bargains, if you’re willing to drive a car with a shorter range. Three-year-old vehicles can change hands at a fraction of their initial price. I picked up my pristine three-year-old Fiat 500e, with 25,000 miles on it, for less than a third of its original 2017 retail price. However, its range is only 90 miles, which means I can’t use it for long trips. These older EVs make great commuter shuttles and second cars.

My Fiat 500e has a 90-mile range, so it doesn’t go on long trips.

Some brands now sell or plan to offer plug-in hybrids, which have an electric motor and a gasoline engine too. Unlike regular hybrids, plug-in hybrids can serve as pure electric vehicles for a limited range, say 20-50 miles, depending on battery size. Plug-in hybrids are not as clean and quiet as EVs, but will be helpful transition vehicles as we move to an all-EV world someday. When the fast charging network is built out and minimum vehicle range starts at 250-300 miles, plug-in hybrids will no longer be needed.

Today, electric cars usually cost more than equivalent gasoline vehicles. This is mainly because of the high price of their batteries. However, EVs cost significantly less to operate, so there is a break-even point at which they become less expensive to run than petrol-fed models. So, you have to consider total cost of ownership when you examine the numbers. And sale/lease prices are likely to drop over the next few years as battery costs are reduced, until they reach purchase price parity with gasoline vehicles in mid-decade. At that point, with lower maintenance costs, EVs will be the better deal.

But the most important reason you should drive an electric vehicle is to help fight climate change.

Climate Change

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Our planet is heating up. There may be some disagreement or confusion in the general population about what’s causing it and what we can or should do about it—and there are some climate deniers, too. But among trained scientists, it there is virtual unanimity about the cause—us—and the urgency of acting quickly. The United Nations’ IPCC Report clearly states how we must all work to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid the worst crises. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was held to commit all countries on a path toward achieving that goal.  

Climate change is actually not news, because experts have known about it for decades and have spoken out. But we haven’t listened or done much about it. Now, scientists say that we have about 10 years to get it handled or it could spiral out of control.

How did this happen? With a population rapidly approaching 8 billion, human activities are now substantial enough to change the planet. Every day, we spew about 110 million tons of manmade global warming pollution into our atmosphere. It comes from various sources, but the major one is the burning of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is only a very thin shell around the earth. As more CO2 accumulates, the atmosphere traps more heat, causing global warming. The science is unambiguous on this.

So, what does it matter how warm the planet is? The problem with the earth heating up is that it disrupts the stable conditions we’ve lived with for the last 10,000 years or so. Global average temperatures have climbed significantly over the last 40 years. Scientists are concerned that we could eventually have some areas of the earth that are uninhabitable, and the people who have to leave there will create refugee crises.

One visible issue with global warming is the melting of glaciers, especially in the polar regions, where temperatures have risen alarmingly. The water from this melt will raise sea levels worldwide, flooding coastal cities.

Someone could ask, “so what do a couple of degrees matter?” Think of it like when a person is sick and has a fever. Even a couple of degrees of difference upsets the body’s processes, and if a fever is too high, death occurs.

Climate disruption also means that global air flows, such as the jet stream, slow down and get a little out of whack, for example, allowing cold air to move from the Arctic into places that are normally not frozen, like the middle of the U.S. Conversely, the Arctic gets 100-degree temperatures, speeding the melting of polar ice.

The oceans are absorbing a lot of the excess heat, and the warmer air above them holds more moisture. This leads to bigger, stronger storms. A lack of rain in the western U.S. causes draughts, so there are more dead trees, which along with rising temperatures, increases wildfires, as we’ve seen in the last few years. 2020 has already been disastrous, and the fire season isn’t over yet.

Disruption is insidious. What if the worms are ready before the birds arrive to eat them? What if the conditions for laying eggs are ideal before or after the turtles arrive? What if warmer temperatures send deadly virus-carrying mosquitos from equatorial areas to temperate regions where the population centers are? And because nature is an ecosystem, a disruption in one area affects many others. It’s all been predicted and is now beginning to happen. Scary.

The complex interactions of nature can’t be explained in a few paragraphs, but the experts who spend their lives studying the natural world and climate science are telling us that we must change our ways now to prevent the planet from accelerating its warming and becoming irreversible. The earth has a great capacity for regeneration, but we are overwhelming its ability to heal itself.

Green Transportation Is an Important Part of the Answer

Image courtesy of the Climate Reality Project

Transportation contributes the largest portion of CO2 to our atmosphere—38 percent in California, where I’m located. There are many other causes, including the production of fossil fuels and burning it to generate electricity. Buildings and agriculture make a significant contribution, too. We need new homes and commercial buildings to be much greener, without burning fossil fuels, and to retrofit the old ones for much greater efficiency. All of this creates many good jobs in a green economy.

To generate clean electricity to power the electric fleets of the future, we need to stop burning coal now and move off of natural gas, too. We need to replace it with solar, wind, and other sustainable technologies. This is doable today, but change is very hard. An encouraging fact is that EVs gets cleaner and cleaner as the energy to power them does. Feeding your EV from solar panels on your roof is the ideal option, if possible.

Fossil Fuel Industry Resistance/Auto Industry Sloth

There are powerful forces at work that want to preserve the status quo. Wealthy oil industry executives are hanging onto their business model—it’s been very successful for more than a century. You can hardly blame them, from a business standpoint. But, if a habit is killing you, you need to stop doing it. Smoking is a killer too—and the answer is to put down the cigarettes.

Another issue with the fossil fuel industry is that the people who run it aren’t suffering from the impacts of climate change nearly as much as the poor people who live near oil wells and refineries or in neighborhoods blighted by freeway traffic. This is why moving to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is a social justice issue, too. Read this report from the American Lung Association about the benefits of clean air.

The auto companies are beginning to get on the EV bandwagon, but other than Tesla, it is not where their profits come from, so they have been moving slowly. However, based on what they are saying, the expectation is that EVs will play a major role in their future products. The questions are “how much?” and “when?” GM, for example, talks about “putting everyone in an EV,” but isn’t specific about a timeline. I believe that if consumers demand electric cars, manufacturers will be more than happy to provide them. So, they are getting prepared now but are still making their profits from the SUVs and trucks that have been sustaining them for years. We can make them move faster by demanding EVs!

Let’s All Take Action

Everyone is part of the problem—environmentalists included. I have an electric car and solar panels to  feed it, but my house still uses natural gas for heat, hot water, and cooking. It’s very difficult –and expensive–to change our ways, which is why providing a method for preserving your lifestyle in a more responsible way is an easy sale. We can’t expect everyone to simply stop driving, can we? EVs can replace gasoline vehicles, but it’s even better if we don’t drive as much, or start riding a bicycle, or walk, or take electrified public transportation. That becomes an urban planning priority, and a lot of work is being done now in this area.  

A Recent Peek at a Cleaner Future

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With emissions temporarily curbed this Spring, the view opened up.

This Spring, when COVID-19 shut down the world for a while, the clear blue skies of yesteryear reappeared quickly. In India, people saw the Himalayas from home for the first time in decades. You could see the difference from space! But, as we’ve resumed more of our travel, the benefits, sadly, have faded away again.

Many Actions We Can Take

There are many things we can do to keep the earth habitable for humans beyond switching to electric vehicles, but getting rid of your gas-burning car is an easy one. Changing to a more plant-based diet is hugely beneficial, too, since the meat industry causes big environmental impacts. Insulating your home and replacing your natural gas furnace with a heat pump is a great way to make an impact, too. Project Drawdown is a great resource for learning more about the many ways you can help.

It’s hard for human beings to think big picture or long range. I consider myself a climate change activist (not an expert), but there are plenty of times I’d rather go have a beer and listen to music than send emails to my congressperson about climate action or improve my house or attend a city council meeting. We all need to do what we can, and urge our local, state, and national governments to do the right thing.

We need corporate responsibility, too. A large company can have a proportionally big impact. If Google moves to renewable electricity sources for keeping their cloud servers cool, it takes a big bite out of dirty energy production. See what Climate Voice is doing on that front.

Al Gore, who’s studied climate change since he was in college and has tirelessly advocated for climate action, founded the Climate Reality Project in 2006 to train others to share the facts about climate change that he presented in his award-winning An Inconvenient Truth slideshow. You can be part of this, too. Go to The Climate Reality Project website for more information about free online trainings. I attended mine in person in Los Angeles in August 2018 and it was a revelation.

Beyond EVs

Scooters have a very small carbon footprint.

Switching to an EV helps, but maybe you don’t need a car at all! In cities, there are many options, including public transportation and shared vehicles (when there’s not a pandemic). Many people are discovering the utility of electric scooters, bicycles, and mopeds—from shared fleets or owning their own. If you’ve ever visited Amsterdam, you know that bicycles, which generate no pollution whatsoever, can be a fine way to travel, especially if cities are designed to make them safe and convenient.

In suburban and rural communities, it’s definitely more of a challenge, but with a growing range of EV offerings, you should be able to switch over easily in the next few years. Electric pickup trucks are almost here!

The Bottom Line

Climate change is heavily driven by the burning of fossil fuels. It’s a real problem and we have to move away from it quickly. There are many things we can and must do, but one action we can take today to lower our consumption of fossil fuels is to drive an EV instead of a gasoline car. Bonus points for riding a bike instead.

Kia Niro Plug-in Hybrid–One of 3 Gas-Saving Flavors

By Steve Schaefer

Kia has been good about offering “Neopolitan” choices for a few of its models. In ice cream, Neopolitan means strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. With a Kia Niro, it means Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid, and pure EV. If the flavors are laid out that way, it would be the “vanilla” selection—the PHEV—that visited my driveway recently.

I have sampled the other flavors of Niro. The hybrid, like all other hybrids, is a way to drive further on less gas, thanks to an electric motor that automatically regenerates power from regenerative braking and stores it in a small battery. There’s no effort required on the driver’s part. With the all-electric model, the Niro challenges other EVs with a high level of equipment and a terrific 239-mile range in a crowd-pleasing SUV shape.

As a PHEV, the Niro offers significantly more electric range than the hybrid, but is still lugging around a gas tank, engine, radiator, etc., which you’ll need for when you want to drive more than 26 miles without a charge. However, you can drive anywhere you want to, anytime.

As they say in the software business, it depends on your “use case.” If you travel long distances a lot, a hybrid is a no-brainer. The plug-in hybrid is great if you occasionally want to drive hundreds of miles unimpeded by a charging stop, but you get nearly full-electric motoring for your short trips around town. The EV is the most environmentally friendly, and you can go over 200 miles before needing an electron fill-up, but charging still takes time.

The beauty is, all three version look and drive about the same. The EV is missing the 1.6-liter, 139-horsepower engine, and its 64-kWh battery is much larger and heavier than the one in the PHEV. The PHEV, like my Horizon Blue tester, has a much smaller 8.9 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery for its more modest range, so it’s in the middle somewhere.

You can spec the PHEV at the LXS, EX, or EX Premium level. My tester was the EX Premium, so it came with some extras that even the regular EX didn’t get. These include a 10.25-inch dash screen instead of the standard 8-inch, a power tilt/slide sunroof, a Harman Kardon 8-speaker upgraded audio system, heated artificial leather seats (new this year), LED interior cabin and cargo lighting, deluxe scuff plates, and more.

The driving experience for the Niro is pleasant, as it cruises silently around town on electricity. The engine comes in when you run out of juice, but during my COVID-19-reduced driving regimen, I rarely heard it. What I did hear, though, was a strange artificial swishing sound below around 20 miles per hour. This is provided to alert oblivious pedestrians, who can’t hear the electric motor in parking lots.

The design of the Niro owes something to the hand and the vision of former Audi stylist Peter Schreyer. He has been at Hyundai/Kia for a while now, so the satisfying balance and distinctive look is now part of all Kia products. For 2020, the instrument panel gets an update, but without a ’19 next to it I can’t say what’s different.

Inside, the controls are typical Kia—easy to use and understand. The oversize screen in my tester featured large displays and setting up Apple CarPlay was a snap. The leather-wrapped wheel feels nice, the seats are comfortable, and it’s all carefully planned to make driving nearly effortless.

Easy to read and easy to use.

The exterior receives midcycle grille and fascia upgrades up front and some upgrades to the tail, too, but nothing too different. This is a nice-looking, if not eye-popping vehicle, so there was no reason to mess with that.

A fresh face for 2020.

Environmentally speaking, the car gets fuel economy numbers of 48 City, 44 Highway, 46 Combined mpg as a hybrid. As a plug-in, it’s rated 105 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) if you charge it up. A full charge from zero on Level 2 240-volt current takes about two hours and 15 minutes.

The EPA green scores are 7 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Fuel Economy/Greenhouse Gas. The Niro PHEV emits just 90 grams of CO2 per mile, which isn’t very much considering some gasoline vehicles I’ve tested spew out well over 300. The more you use the battery the lower that actual number will be, of course.

Prices, including shipping, start at $30,610 for the LXS and range up through the EX at $34,350 and EX Premium at $37,510. My tester came to $37,790 with additional cargo mats and net.

Unlike some Hyundais and Kias, which are built in the U.S., this one is assembled in Hwasung, Korea. These days that doesn’t really mean much, but now you know.

As a reasonably roomy, high-utility crossover, any Kia Niro is a perfect choice for many people. You pick the battery size for what suits you.

Chevrolet Bolt EV — Still Fine in its Fourth Year

By Steve Schaefer

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An automotive writer normally tests a car for a week and based on that, attempts to provide an impression of what it would be like to own it. In the case of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, I can provide five days of recent experience plus three years of personal history.

The bottom line? The 2020 Bolt EV I just tested is almost exactly the same as the 2017 model that I leased on January 8, 2017, with a few important differences. In some ways, that’s a good thing, because the Bolt was remarkably well thought out and executed at its debut.

The Bolt EV was the first affordable all-electric vehicle with decent range. In California in 2017, if you bought the car, you could take $10,000 off with federal and state credits. Back then, Teslas retailed at significantly more, and the Model 3 wasn’t even out yet. Other EV choices then included cars like the Nissan LEAF, with under 100 miles of range, and the VW e-Golf with 124. The Bolt EV boasted an impressive 238 miles of range, enough to eliminate most range anxiety.

The Big News

The big news with the 2020 Bolt is that it now has 259 miles of range, a nice boost of 21 miles. GM improved the battery chemistry to make the same size battery store more electricity (60 to 66 kWh). From a marketing standpoint, this development may also be an attempt to outdo the Hyundai Kona, which debuted after the Bolt and boasts 258 miles of range.

My test Bolt EV wore low-key Slate Gray Metallic paint—a far cry from the eye-popping Kinetic Blue Metallic of my car. But there seems to be a demand now for colors that mimic a filing cabinet. It was, however, beautifully applied, and is new for 2020. The test car featured the Dark Galvanized/Sky Cool Gray interior—my car’s had white on light gray. The newer Bolts have a handy sliding sunvisor, too, but otherwise, the interior looked identical.

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I loved my Bolt’s Kinetic Blue paint.

Plenty of Room

The Bolt is a tall hatchback, not an SUV, so it’s not exactly the hot design in the marketplace. It may resemble a subcompact Honda Fit, but in fact it has midsize room inside, with tall chairs up front and plenty of rear legroom. The tall roofline helps. The car is relatively narrow, so four people will be comfortable and folks sitting three across in the back might be happier if they are children.

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The Bolt EV is much larger than my current car, a Fiat 500e. 

Being a hatchback, the Bolt easily drops its rear seats flat to make room for a huge load of cargo. I carried an upright bass and amplifier in mine (bass guitar and amp pictured). A hard panel at the rear can create a level load floor or drop down into the cargo area for taller items. The charging cable (for Level 1 household current) lives under there, but it’s also a nice space to hide things while the cargo space is exposed. The car comes with a dainty cloth cargo cover for when the seatbacks are up that does an adequate job.

Load gear

Generous Power

The Bolt provides a firm ride and vigorous acceleration. Its 200-horsepower motor produces up to 266 lb.-ft. of torque, which pulls the car along virtually silently from 0-60 in just 6.5 seconds. You can set the car’s one-speed automatic transmission to have very light energy regeneration (feels like a typical automatic) or click the lever into “L” for higher regeneration, which adds more energy to the battery. As with my own Bolt, I used the L setting virtually all the time, so I could do “one pedal driving.” This means you can use the accelerator to move forward when you press down and also to slow down—even to a complete stop—by lifting off your foot. It becomes a fun game to see if you can just make it to the line at the stop sign or stoplight without touching the brake pedal. The brakes themselves work fine when you need them. Strong regen feels a little like downshifting in a manual-equipped car.

Packed with Conveniences

The Bolt was a new design in 2017 and has all the modern safety and internal conveniences you could want. As in my own car, I used Apple CarPlay app to verbally send and receive texts while driving (with help from Siri.) The 10.2-inch center screen is bright and clearly laid out. Preferably when parked, you can scroll through and see how you’re doing saving energy. Redundant audio controls on the steering wheel make it easy to pick music selections and control volume, or you can touch the screen itself.

Some people have complained about the Bolt’s firm, narrow seats, but the 2020 model ones felt a little more comfortable. As a Premier model, my tester had leather chairs, which I have heard are more comfortable than the standard cloth ones in the LT, but you should spend some time in them yourself if you opt for the base model.

If anything, the Bolt EV is very much what it was designed to be and offers a solution to EV motoring for most people. It’s not the hottest product on the market, with Tesla providing the sex appeal and Hyundai a true crossover look with its models. And choices from more manufacturers are on the way. But prices have remained about the same, and surely by now GM has ironed out any issues with the platform. A new Bolt-based crossover is coming soon, if you can wait a year or so.

The Bolt EV is base-priced at $37,495 for the LT. The Premier, with extra comfort and convenience features, plus upgrades like leather seats, polished alloy wheels, a cool video rear view mirror, and roof rails, comes to $41,020. My tester had $1,840 worth of options, including $750 for the fast-charge plug (worth it if you travel longer distances, and should really be standard equipment), and totaled $43,735.

The rebates are fading away, but there are some great deals now. I saw an online offer of an $8,500 Cash Allowance or (for well qualified buyers) 0% APR for 72 Months. Lease rates on an LT start at only $199/month for three years. Check with your dealer for details and read the fine print.

Wrapping Up

If you don’t know the Bolt EV, you should sample one before signing a deal on an EV. It’s fun, spacious, seemingly well made, and if you have a European sensibility and like hatchbacks, it’s perfect. I had virtually no service needs during my three-year lease. One battery issue was fixed free on warranty (including a free loaner), and all I did was rotate the tires and change the cabin air filter. And I never went to a gas station.

Ford Mustang Mach-E: Selling Car Buyers on Going Electric

By Steve Schaefer

A new Mustang for a new world.

If we believe the growing scientific consensus, we must reduce our CO2 emissions by at least half in the next decade to hold global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Warming above that is considered to be catastrophic. Since the largest (but by no means only) source of these emissions is transportation, moving to an all-electric vehicle fleet, powered by sustainably generated electricity, is urgent and necessary.

That message is about as welcome as the cancer warning on a pack of smokes. And similarly, not often heeded, either.

Susan B. Anthony is not sexy

But how do we get people to buy EVs? As long as customers have a wide choice of gasoline-powered vehicles, only early adopters and climate activists are snapping up what companies have provided. It’s like the dollar coin—regardless of whether you put an abolitionist, an historic Native-American, or a president on it, it has been a nonstarter as long as folks could use the good old paper bill (or today, their debit card).

It’s also like selling cereal—the “good for you” Bran Flakes may attract a certain health-conscious (or constipated) clientele, but it’s not where the action is. Captain Crunch with Crunchberries, filled with sugar and marketed breathlessly to children, is the volume seller.

For a century, car marketing has evoked emotion to sell cars, and has built its products to reflect customer demand, which in turn, is fueled by massive marketing and advertising campaigns. Although there have always been compact, fuel-sipping vehicles that practical people bought because they couldn’t afford more, the action has been on style and performance, from fins to V8 engines and today, to loads of high tech features.

So far, only Tesla has been the brand to offer an exciting EV experience in all of its cars. It works because first of all, they sell ONLY EVs and secondly, they have made them attractive and powerful. In contrast, Nissan’s LEAF, while certainly practical and environmentally conscious, is too close to automotive bran flakes. GM’s excellent Bolt EV is another fine car, without the range limitations of the LEAF, but for $40,000, one could also bring home a 3-Series BMW. Not sexy.

The automotive equivalent to Bran Flakes.

Using the climate crisis as a marketing tool, then, clearly isn’t working. And in a consumer-driven economy we can’t force people to buy EVs if they don’t want them. Which brings us to Ford’s upcoming Mustang Mach-E crossover.

Ford’s EV history has up to now featured the lackluster battery-powered Focus and a few hybrid and plug-in hybrids, including the attractive midsize Fusion sedans and European-design C-Max. Now, with Tesla as an inspiration, Ford has decided to blend their most iconic model with the most up-to-date tech in today’s most popular body configuration to create a real Tesla competitor.

I attended a compelling online presentation by Mark Kaufman, Global Director, Electrification at Ford, yesterday, in which he outlined the plans the company has for its EVs going forward, with an emphasis on the exciting new Mustang, which will be sold alongside its gas-powered coupe stable mates.

The Mustang was an instant hit when it debuted in April 1964. Based on the tried-and-true platform from the popular but dowdy compact Falcon, it hit a sweet spot and sold half a million copies in its first year. Surely Ford’s leaders are savoring another blockbuster like that with the Mach-E. As Kaufman said, it is the only EV with the soul of a Mustang (sounds like a great advertising pitch, doesn’t it?).

The Mustang has always been a coupe, fastback, or convertible, so making it a five-passenger crossover is a nod to what’s hot today. Also, Kaufman stated that while many people love their Mustangs, when the kids come along their beloved cars are simply too small. So, it all makes sense.

Admitting that global catastrophe is not a compelling sales tool for most people, the planners at Ford will offer a GT version of the Mach-E that puts out 600 horsepower and can run from 0-60 in the mid three-second range. No climate leader has ever said that was important to them, but for the mass of car enthusiasts, especially of American iron, that’s extremely attractive (and very much a page out of Tesla’s gameplan). Kaufman mentioned an “Unbridled” setting that sounds a lot like Tesla’s “ludicrous” mode.

The arguments against buying an EV often center around the whole charging/range anxiety problem, so Ford is giving the regular, rear-wheel-drive model a 300-mile range (230 for the muscular all-wheel-drive GT). The company will promote installation of home chargers that can put in 30 miles of range in an hour. DC fast charging allows 61 miles of range in 10 minutes or 40-45 minutes to 80 percent. They have also built out the FordPass Charging Network, which isn’t new charging stations but combines four existing networks with one payment setup, for ease and efficiency. They’ve designed a slick phone app to track the process as well. Once again, Tesla is the model for a unified network, although they built their own equipment.

What else? Ford flaunts its more than a century of car sales and service, with virtually all service done by more than 3,000 dealers nationwide, of which 2,100 or more are certified to work on EVs. Tesla can’t match that. Also, the new shopping experience targets millennials with online reservations for shopping and service.

I am eager to test this exciting new product. However, I wonder how we can get the fleet electrified in 10 years. Nobody expects it to be 100 percent electric by 2030, but I’d like to see half of the cars be EVs by then. Kaufman said, reasonably, that most predictions are based on past performance and that this won’t work here, but he also said he expected a third of cars to be EVs by 2030. That’s why Ford has plans for an electric F-150 pickup (America’s best-seller for decades) and an electric Transit van, as well.

To speed the conversion of the vehicle fleet to electric, Ford and other companies must not only provide thrilling EVs, but solid mass market EVs soon. That means we need all-electric Honda Accords and Toyota RAV4s. Buyers need to start viewing gas cars as old and out of style. Certainly the auto industry, which created the whole idea of planned obsolescence, can make fuel-burning vehicles obsolete, can’t they?

The 2021 Mustang Mach-E is due out at the end of the year. 

2020 Mini Cooper SE – Electricity Plus Charm

My first COVID-19 test car

By Steve Schaefer

I’ve loved Minis since they arrived in the U.S. in late 2001 as 2002 models. Cute, fun, and cheeky, they are longtime favorites.

Now I’m an EV guy, so I don’t drive gas cars anymore. But the day is saved, because Mini has finally released an all-electric model–the Mini Cooper SE. It’s everything I’ve always wanted, except for one thing.

Please read my story on Clean Fleet Report for the details.

A Gift of Clean Air: Let’s Move to EVs in the Post-COVID-19 World

HImalayas

The Himalayas are visible in India for the first time in 30 years.

I have spent the last seven weeks working from home—sheltering in place to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19.

As I’ve stayed home, the world has suffered greatly, and people have gotten sick and died. That’s very upsetting. But one thing has improved substantially–air quality. From a sparklingly clear Los Angeles to India, where the Himalayas are visible for the first time in 30 years (see above), it’s been an exciting peek at what we can do if we set our minds to it. We need to get through this crisis now, but for the future, we must reduce our CO2 levels significantly–by 50 percent in the next 10 years and be carbon neutral by 2050. EVs and sustainably-generated power are a big part of that solution.

With that in mind, 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.

On April 20th, I published my last two reviews of cars with gasoline engines in them, in Clean Fleet Report. Please go there for the details on the Lexus RX 450hL hybrid crossover and the Hyundai Ioniq plug-in hybrid sedan. Both nice–neither full electric.

As I mentioned in that story, I believe that in the post-COVID-19 world, we will need to continue to find alternatives to driving and cleaner ways to move around. Public transit will likely take a while to feel safe again, especially before a COVID-19 vaccine is found and administered. More people may discover they like working at home, and their companies may find it’s a good arrangement for them, too. Carsharing and ridesharing services will rebound when they seem safe, too. In cities, we need more bicycle-friendly roads and infrastructure. And as automakers bring out more pure EVs and the charging infrastructure is built out, we must move away from hybrids and PHEVs entirely–maybe even from cars themselves.

Although I will be testing, reviewing, and writing about only all-electric cars, there are still many hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles that are better for the environment than gasoline-only vehicles. If an EV won’t work for you (and they don’t yet, for everyone), please consider them over a gas-only vehicle. But if you can drive an EV–do it!

Let’s keep those skies blue.

Farewell to My Chevrolet Bolt EV

By Steve Schaefer

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Today, I said goodbye to my Chevrolet Bolt EV, affectionately named, in the style of Pee Wee Herman, “Bolty.” My Kinetic Blue 2017 all-electric hatchback served me well for three years and 26,490 miles, but a lease is a lease and I had to return it by January 8th.

Origins

I’ve driven and tested cars for nearly 28 years, mostly with weekly test vehicles. As I learned about and drove electric cars, I became very interested in them. I sampled a Nissan LEAF when it arrived in 2011 and a few other EVs, but the real turning point was when I convinced the generous folks at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to lend me a baby blue Fiat 500e for three months in early 2016. My happy time with that little car, whom I named Fidelio, convinced me that I wanted an EV of my own.

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Fidelio I.

I began to focus on only electrified vehicles in my auto review column and blogs. I started www.stevegoesgreen.com to write about my adventures with Fidelio, and it’s since expanded to cover other climate-related topics.

The Bolt EV was a revelation—with its 238 miles of range it would be able to handle almost anything, including the 165-mile round trip to visit my granddaughters. I ordered my car in October of 2016 without ever driving or even seeing a real car. I was hoping I’d like it.

I impatiently waited for delivery, and finally, the very first week of 2017, I got the phone call that my Bolt was on the truck and being delivered. In a day or two, I was down at Boardwalk Chevrolet in Redwood City, CA to pick it up.

Taking delivery 1-8-17

Exactly What I Needed

I took to my new car immediately, and it proved to be exactly what I needed and wanted. It may look compact, because it has almost no front or rear overhangs, but the Bolt is spacious for 4 or 5 passengers and the hatchback folds down easily to carry lots of gear, including an upright bass or two electric basses, amps, and the works. The high roof means abundant headroom, even for tall folks (I’m only 5-8).

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One of the wonders of EVs is how quickly they accelerate, and the Bolt, while not Tesla fast, is as quick as a Volkswagen Golf GTI – about 6.3 seconds zero-to-sixty. The weight of the 960-pound battery means a low center of gravity, for taut responses and level handling.

And it does it all virtually silently. If you turn off the audio system, you’ll hear a very low hum from the motor, and wind and tire noise are muted. And, since there’s nothing reciprocating, like pistons in a gas engine, there’s no vibration. You get used to it, and gas cars then feel rough.

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Visiting my old house where I lived as a teenager.

Electric cars don’t need transmissions, since maximum torque is delivered from the first moment the motor spins, but the Bolt has an “L” (Low) setting on the one-speed transmission’s lever. If you use D (Drive) it feels like a normal automatic transmission, but in L, when you lift off the accelerator pedal (not the “gas”) the car slows down quickly—even to a complete stop. When you get used to this “one-pedal driving,” it feels natural, and you can barely tap the brakes as you slide into a red light and stop on a dime. It feels like downshifting a manual transmission. The regenerative braking helps charge up the battery, too.

I ordered the light interior—white and light gray–which felt airy, but by the end of three years, the white leather on the driver’s seat was looking grayer. But other than that, and one little hook for the rear cargo cover that occasionally popped out, everything in the interior was solid and worked as it should.

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Of course, the best thing of all is that my Bolty didn’t use one drop of gasoline for three years! At first, I plugged it in at work, but last April I finally installed a Level 2 (240-volt) charger in my garage when my solar panels went up (on Earth Day). So, for more than half of 2019, Bolty ran on sunshine.

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Solar array went up on Earth Day 2019.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The Bolt embodies all the strengths and weaknesses of EVs. The obvious strengths are the low environmental impact, quick acceleration, and quiet operation. There’s essentially no service, either, except tire rotations—no oil changes, no radiator flush. There are a lot fewer moving parts to have problems. And when you use regenerative braking, the brake pads last practically forever.

So, what about weaknesses? The most significant is the range issue. Although today’s EVs easily top 200 miles between charges, and some can go more than 300 miles, it still takes time to charge, and you may not be able to find a public charger when you need it. Even fast chargers take longer than a stop at the gas station. It may not matter in most situations, but on a long trip it requires some careful planning and willingness to be flexible. I avoided it, because the couple of times when I knew it would be an issue, I took a gas-burning vehicle. Yes, I feel a little guilty, but that’s a good way to drive an EV 51 weeks a year.

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Charging at work.

I expect the charging problem to be solved as charging stations proliferate and fast charging gets really quick.  And actually, most charging can and should be done slowly at home or at work while the car sits parked. I know this won’t work for everyone, which is why I test and recommend hybrids and plug-in hybrids for those situations. Someday, the subscription model may become popular, where you no longer own a car, but simply reserve the kind you want as you need it, from a fleet. Then, you could select a long-distance vehicle for a trip and use a less expensive, smaller low-range vehicle when you stayed local.

Another issue with EVs is that initial costs of purchase or lease are higher, mainly because batteries are still expensive, even though prices have come down. My upper-level Bolt Premier with options had a sticker price of nearly $44,000. With $5,500 in rebates and financing assistance, I put down $10K and paid $332/month for three years. This price disparity will go down over time, but it can be intimidating. However, if you look at the total cost of ownership over several years, EVs come out ahead, with much cheaper fuel (electrons) and virtually no service required.

A third concern is choice. The Bolt has company now, as more and more EVs and plug-in hybrids are appearing in showrooms. But there still is no all-electric pickup truck, for example (but there will be soon). In the next few years, manufacturers will fill in their lineup with many more EV and hybrid models, from hatchbacks to sedans to SUVs.

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Enough range to travel–we drove to Bodega Bay and back.

Only One Significant Issue

The only notable problem with my Bolt happened last year, when, after what the dealer told me was a routine software update, my car’s battery suddenly charged only to about 100 miles and not the 200+ it should. I tried running it way down and charging, but it wouldn’t move past 100. That made my car like one of the older EVs, such as a LEAF, Kia Soul EV or VW e-Golf. I complained to my dealer, but they were unresponsive. I tried another Chevy dealer closer to my house and they checked with GM headquarters and got the OK to do a battery swap for me, at no charge. It restored my range and happiness.

Sharing the EV Love and Information

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National Drive Electric Week at Marketo.

As an EV driver and auto writer, I valued the Bolt for giving me a way to experience the EV life firsthand, so I could share my car and my knowledge in my columns and blogs. I could participate in events, such as National Drive Electric Week (each September) and Earth Day events in April. I hosted National Drive Electric Week events for two years at my workplace, where EV driving employees parked their cars in rows in the parking lot and talked with other employees. I am an EV Ambassador for Acterra, a Palo Alto-based environmental organization. And I now work at Ridecell, where we develop and sell software for carsharing and ridesharing fleets, including the 260-Bolt Gig Car Share fleet in Sacramento.

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You can rent a Bolt by the minute or the hour in Sacramento.

As an EV person, I began phasing out gasoline-only test cars in 2018, and in 2019, I tested only one—the short-term Chevy Cruze rental I had when my Bolt got its battery swapped.

What Next?

I considered buying Bolty at the end of the lease, but even though the bring back value was barely more than half the initial price, it would still cost more per month to finance than my lease. I looked at other EVs, including the worthy Hyundai Kona Electric (258-miles of range), but I was hoping to lower my monthly costs.

I researched used EVs, and It turns out there are some screaming deals. Second-hand early Nissan LEAFs can run as little as $6,000. I ended up buying a little Fiat 500e, just like Fidelio, my 2016 test car. I got it at Rose Motorcars, in Castro Valley, CA. They specialize in the secondhand EV market, and I like the way they do business.

My new Fiat is the same color as the first one, too, so I’ve named it Fidelio II. A 2017 with 23,000 miles on it, it feels like new, and cost just $10,000 (under $200 a month). It’s smaller, and most significantly, has a third of the Bolt’s electric range, but I plan to use it for my local errands. There will likely be another EV in my future, but for now, Fidelio II should work fine.

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Fidelio II is taking over for Bolty.

What I’ll Miss

I’ll miss some of Bolty’s features. Fidelio II doesn’t have the high regenerative braking (L) transmission setting, so no one-pedal driving. My Bolt’s inside rearview mirror was a video camera—much better than a regular mirror.

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And, the backup system, with multiple cameras, provided a birds-eye view of my car in the big 10.2-inch center screen—so parking squarely in a spot and avoiding curbs was a snap.

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My Bolt had the upgraded Bose stereo, for premium sound, with Apple CarPlay, so I could hook up my phone and play my music. It also used the phone for navigation, which meant I could set up a destination before I got in the car and it was projected onto the dash screen. I’ll miss the ability to send verbal texts (through Siri) as I drive.

For safety, I had blind spot monitoring, a very worthwhile feature, and cross traffic alert told me if there were cars on the road behind me when I was backing out of my driveway.

Last Thoughts

I like the styling of the Bolt—inside and out—but I’m an old hatchback guy. I had a 1986 Honda Civic Si back in the day. Apparently the gently sweeping interior was designed by a woman—unusual in the industry. The use of white accents gives it a certain sparkle.

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I loved the rich blue exterior paint—and enjoyed seeing my car across the parking lot. I took photos of it in various scenic locations, just for fun.

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The Bolt is a product of GM Korea, the former Daewoo, but it’s built in Michigan. That’s the way the auto industry works these days. The LG battery is Korean, as well. In any case, quality is high.

My personal goal, as a Climate Reality Leader and car enthusiast, is to spread the word on the joys and benefits of electric motoring. We need clean cars and clean energy! I will continue testing and reviewing every new EV I can get, but I’m going to miss my Bolty.

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Turning in Bolty after a great three-year run.