Going Green at the 2017 WAJ Media Days

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Every spring for the last 25 years, the Western Automotive Journalists (WAJ) has brought together its journalist members and manufacturers (and their cars) at a scenic location with a racetrack. The goal is to evaluate a variety of cars on the road and the racetrack, network, have fun, and get a good story, too.

As I have for almost every year since the first event back in 1993, I attended with anticipation. And, as I have for at least the last dozen years, I roomed at the hotel with my buddies Jon and Carey. However, as I’m increasing my focus on green vehicles, I tried to concentrate my energy on environmentally responsible options.

I Drove my All-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV to the Event

For the first time ever, I drove my own car to the event. My 105-mile trip to Monterey, California was in my own Chevrolet Bolt EV. With my two pals in tow, what could be more environmentally sensitive than to carpool in an all-electric vehicle? It kept one old gas car and one motorcycle off the highway entirely.

The Bolt EV is a roomy compact hatchback, and it fit us and our gear without a problem when I folded down one of the rear seats.

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Always interested in checking the accuracy of the car’s range, I took before and after photos of my instrument panel.

In my driveway, it looked like this, with 251 miles of estimated range (about the best it’s ever looked, by the way):

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When we pulled into the hotel, it looked like this:

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The 105-mile trip lowered my estimated range by 113 miles–pretty nice for an all-freeway trip at 65-70 miles per hour. And, of course, the ride was smooth and quiet all the way. We had similar mileage on the return trip.

PG&E’s New Plugin Electric Hybrid Charging Trucks

138 miles should allow a return trip without a recharge, but that would be cutting it close. And, I planned to drive out to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and back, too. So, I was very fortunate to get to use PG&E’s new portable charging truck to top off my battery the night I arrived.

These amazing new trucks are completely self contained and can charge multiple vehicles at a time. The one I used was the smaller one, which required setting up charging stations, but the larger, 19,000-pound model we used at the event locations had direct cables from the truck to the vehicle, and included quick-charge capacity. The trucks, which themselves are Diesel/electric hybrids, will save a lot of energy as they’re used for their normal duties (see below), and with their onboard generator, can power up vehicles that need it. Here’s the smaller truck I used at the Monterey Tides hotel:

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Note the charging bollard standing there. The orange item is a grounding sheet that Jim Larson of PG&E installed underneath it.

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Here’s the control panel.

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At the racetrack, the trucks charged multiple cars at a time. Here the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan (the only one on the market!) and a Chevrolet Bolt EV get charged up.

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Here are more details from PG&E’s press release about these fantastic new trucks:

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and Efficient Drivetrains Incorporated (EDI) will showcase the utility industry’s first plug-in electric hybrid (PHEV) drivetrain Class 5 work bucket truck featuring 120kW exportable power that can be used to shorten or eliminate planned and unplanned outages.

PG&E partnered with EDI and Dixon-based Altec Industries, to develop this vehicle, which was designed, built and tested in the heart of California at EDI’s plant in Dixon. The vehicle features up to 50 miles all-electric range before switching to hybrid mode and 120kW exportable power, capable of powering 80% of the transformers in PG&E’s service area. The truck also features Altec’s electric worksite management system, which allows all onboard equipment including the boom, climate control and tools to be operated off of battery power, eliminating the need to idle the engines of the trucks while at job sites. These vehicles will reduce emissions by up to 80% when compared to conventional fuel vehicles.  PG&E estimates that each EDI truck will save the utility over 850 gallons of fuel per year. PG&E has deployed this technology in class 3, 5 and 6 platforms and currently operates 12 of the units.

I Drove Two Hydrogen-powered EVs Back to Back

Eager to start out green, I drove the two hydrogen cars right away–the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. The third hydrogen vehicle on the market, Hyundai’s Tucson, wasn’t there, but these two midsize sedans represent the bulk of today’s very small segment, and are quite similar. Both feature weird styling, hundreds of miles of range, a reasonable lease price, and an undramatic driving experience. They feel like Toyota and Honda versions of the same car.

I drove the Mirai first. I had spent an hour with this vehicle before, driving a limited course in residential San Francisco. I was eager to get it out onto the highway and let it loose a little. The Mirai was introduced in 2014, while the Clarity goes back to 2008. However, this second-generation Clarity came out just a few months ago.

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The Mirai wears exaggerated versions of Toyota’s current styling elements. The front scoops help direct lots of cool air to the components under the hood that convert hydrogen to energy (and water) and the electric motor. The tail of the car is somewhat sad looking. However, the interior, featuring the sweeping panels seen also on the Camry and Prius, feels more conventional.

The Mirai runs quietly, but unlike battery-powered EVs, lacks the wealth of torque you’d expect, so performance is leisurely. But the main story here, as in the Clarity, is that the technology is futuristic but the driving experience is ordinary. Maybe that’s a good thing.

The new second-generation Clarity, my second ride of the day, is also an odd-looking beast.

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The giant scoops up front, sliced semi-skirted rear wheels, and overstyled tail continue the hydrogen car strangeness. But–this car does look like a Honda, so maybe the assumption is that both of these cars reflect “the future” of their respective brands, like vehicles in a movie set in 2035.

As in the Mirai, the interior is less strange than the exterior. My main memory is of artificial plastic wood trim and alcantara on the dash and soft seating. Nothing else really stood out.

Both test cars had more than 200 miles of range on the odometer when I drove them. Range isn’t as much as an issue with hydrogen cars, since you can fill them up and drive like a gas car, and they can have 300 or more miles of range on a five-minute fill-up. The issue is finding a place to do it. There are very few hydrogen stations in California right now. If the infrastructure isn’t built out, it will likely remain a very marginal technology.

You can help promote  this new technology by leasing one these cars. Toyota’s deal is $349 a month with three years worth of free fuel. You also can buy the car for $57,500. The Clarity leases for $369 a month; there’s no purchase option. They also have a free fuel offer.

There are many differences between these two cars, and I’d like to cover them in a separate article. The bottom line is, you can drive either for essentially $350 a month total–and be part of the future.

Chrysler Pacifica is the Only Hybrid Minivan you can Buy

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I got a chance to spend 20 minutes or so driving and riding in the new Pacific hybrid minivan. While I’ve tested the regular model recently (full story soon for my newspapers and websites), this one provides more than 30 miles of pure EV driving. As a new model, it’s really nice to drive in any case, but with electric power, it’s much more efficient–and, of course, quieter. It climbed the hills of the Laureles Grade test run without getting breathless, although the engine did have to chime in to get it done. I’m looking forward to a week-long test soon, and that story will appear here in stevegoesgreen.com.

Zero Motorcycles – Green on Two Wheels

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I am not a motorcycle rider, but I spent time talking with three of the friendly and knowledgeable people from Zero Motorcycles, purveyors of electric two-wheeled transportation. I also heard a presentation from the company’s new CEO.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to test one–I don’t have a motorcycle license, and even off the street, you needed one to ride. I’ve always thought that part of the “fun” of driving a motorcycle was the sound, and watching other journalists test these gave an eerie sense of somehow not having the soundtrack on. But not only are these bikes apparently great fun, but they are a lot more comfortable without the vibration. The company builds a portfolio of models for different purposes in a range of prices, so best to check out their website for details. I’m half tempted to get my M1 license so I can give one a test ride.

Automotive Steel is Evolving for Efficiency

At the formal dinner on the evening of Day 2, our keynote speaker was Dave Anderson, Senior Director – Automotive Market from the Steel Market Development Institute. Dave told us about modern steel and how it’s changed over the years in automotive applications. I learned a lot. We hear a lot about “high strength” steel these days, but what does it all mean? Apparently there are hundreds of kinds of steel, and depending on its chemical makeup and processing, it can be extremely strong or very flexible–or possess other qualities, as needed. Making auto components out of different types can reduce weight while enhancing safety. Although the steel industry is smaller in the U.S. than it was years ago, It’s still a big factor in automotive industry–and the SMDI wants to keep it that way.

The Rest of the Cars

With dozens of cars available, I had to sample some others, and I did burn some petroleum doing it.

The Jaguar F-Pace is the brand’s first crossover SUV, and it was impressive and powerful.

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On the other side of the equation, the Toyota CH-R, originally meant to be a Scion, was small and quirky on the outside and drove like a nice small Toyota should.

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One of the hits of the day was the Alfa-Romeo Guilia, in powerhouse Quadrifoglia form. Out on the Monterey County back roads, it was a force, and many of my colleagues got to ride in it on the racetrack.

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I drove the unusual topless Range Rover Evoque convertible on an offroad course. Concentrating on moving slowly and deliberately over the uneven terrain was a nice palate cleanser from driving on the highway.

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I sampled the new, larger MINI Countryman, and it still felt like a MINI–but more luxurious. There’s a plugin hybrid version coming later this year that I’m eager to spend time with.

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A quick run over the hills in the sleek new Volvo V90 was a nice contrast to the MINI. Volvo has its act together, with premium amenities and beautiful styling. This is a wagon version of the new S90 sedan, which I recently tested.

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I found the new Honda Civic hatchback with a six-speed manual and had to take that one for a spin to row the gears. Although much larger than my 1986 Civic Si hatchback, it felt more like those old, fun Hondas of yesteryear. And it was white on the outside and black on the inside–just like my old ride. Note the gorgeous well-watered springtime countryside.

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I tested two Infinitis–the potent and luxurious Q60 coupe and the small, Mercedes-Benz-based QX30 crossover. The former was perhaps the best-looking iteration of Infiniti’s molten styling I’ve seen so far, and the silvery carbon fiber interior trim and white seats were a knockout. The little QX30 felt taut and fun during my brief ride.

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Two compact crossovers that have been thoroughly updated got my attention–the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5. These direct competitors show why this segment is taking over from sedans. Solid, attractive, and relatively efficient, they were both steps up from their predecessors.

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Mazda CX-5

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Lastly, I experienced the Navdy Augmented Driving device in an Audi Q7. This little marvel sits atop your instrument panel and provides a wealth of information and options through a head-up device.

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Controlled by a little wheel and button attached to the steering wheel, I could make phone calls, see map directions, read text messages, make musical selections, and much more. Easy to install, the unit attaches magnetically to its base, so you can tuck it away in a little cloth bag in your glove compartment when you park. The goal is to keep you connected without taking your eyes off the road.

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I didn’t drive it (mine is identical except for color), but the white Chevrolet Bolt EV went out a lot, and I talked with folks after they drove it to get their reactions.

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As always, the chance to meet and mingle with my old friends and our longtime and new automotive PR colleagues was invaluable. I look forward to following up my new relationships and taking some of the vehicles for week-long evaluations.

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.

Chevrolet Volt – The Perfect Compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiat 500e – The Cutest EV in Town

[Note: This article will appear in the San Leandro Times and Tri-City Voice newspapers soon. It’s exactly the size and style of car reviews I’ve written weekly since early 1992 (more than 1,150 of them). But this little car was special to me, both because I kept it so much longer than the others but also because I loved almost everything about it, from the color to the design to the carrying capacity to the total avoidance of gas stations.]

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Most people understand that we are facing a climate crisis. Much of global warming comes from burning carbon, which creates CO2, which accumulates and, thanks to the greenhouse effect, keeps more of the Earth’s heat in, leading to rising temperatures, and all the consequences.

Driving an electric car is a positive response to this crisis. The Fiat 500e is one of the most affordable ones, and it’s a joy to drive.

It’s certainly the cutest electric car out there. The retro design is based on the 1957-1975 500, which served as Italy’s VW Beetle or Mini—an affordable and beloved people’s car. The gasoline model arrived 2011, and in 2013, the all-electric version debuted.

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Fiat graciously sent me the Celeste Blue model with the black and steam (white) interior I ordered for a three-month test. When the car was delivered, I photographed it, and a rainbow came out. That was a good omen.

The driving experience has been wonderful. With 600 extra pounds of batteries over the gas version, the 500e sits firm and stable on the road.

The old-fashioned dash panel brings a smile. Chrome circles surround the gauges and controls, and the white plastic panels emulate the original car’s painted metal surfaces.

But this is no retro ride. It’s got full climate control, loads of airbags, heated seats, a navigation system, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, Bluetooth, and much more. The white leather steering wheel gives an upscale look and feel, like something from Coach.

The 83 kW motor puts out 111 horsepower and 147 lb.-ft. of torque. It moves the nearly 3,000-pound 500e along like a mini rocket.

The standard gasoline version has more horsepower (135) but much less torque (97), so the 500e is more fun. The one-speed transmission (no shifting needed with electric motors) is a set of four push buttons on the console.

The 500e’s 24 kWh lithium-ion battery is rated at 84 miles per charge, although with careful driving, I often charged it up to a reading of as much as 109 miles. The battery comes with an 8 year, 100,000-mile warranty.

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For electrics, the EPA uses the MPGe calculation in place of MPG (no gallons). The 500e earns 121 City, 103 Highway, and 112 Combined. I averaged 138.2 MPGe driving 2,829 miles. The Smog and Greenhouse Gas numbers are both top-score 10’s.

I took my little Fiat everywhere, except on longer trips. I didn’t want to risk running out of charge. It easily handled my 18-mile-each-way commute every day and went on a variety of errands around town.

Thanks to the folding rear seats and hatchback, I carried my upright bass to orchestra rehearsals and concerts. I schlepped Blues band gear to shows. I hauled loads of groceries.

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I did most of my charging at work, on a nice set of six ChargePoint units. I plugged in when I arrived, and by late morning, the ChargePoint charger sent me a text that the battery was full. I went down and unplugged, so another EV driver could charge up.

We have an informal community of EV drivers at work, and people are excited about their cars and want to talk about them.

Charging at 240 volts (Level 2) at work takes only a few hours. At home, at 120 volts (Level 1), it takes overnight and then some. If you own an EV, you should look into installing your own Level 2 charger.

Driving is blissfully silent, with minimal road or wind noise, which means great music listening.

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The simple instrument panel features a center round gauge that prominently displays digital speed and range. On the left, there’s a graphical and numerical display of battery charge. On the right, you can monitor driving behavior with colors on a curved bar. Eco—green—is normal driving. Power—red—is when you’re accelerating hard for passing or entering the freeway. Charge—blue—indicates regenerative braking, which helps recharge the battery without plugging in.

My daily charge at work cost about $2 to $2.50. Electricity would be cheaper at night at home. The window sticker states that the estimated annual fuel cost is $600, a $6,000 savings over the average car. And maintenance costs are very low for EVs, with no oil changes and fewer moving parts to break.

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My car retailed at $33,190. However, most of these cars are leased, and some amazing deals are available. Federal and State rebates help make it affordable. Gas-powered 500s start at just $18,490.

I fell for my baby blue Fiat 500e, and named him Fidelio. I’ll truly miss having him around. He was totally charming, relaxing to commute in, and handled all my normal driving needs. And for longer trips, we just took the family car.

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EVs and their Sociable Drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Drove in the Sunshine

In 1964, a song by Gale Garnett filled the AM radio airwaves, called We Sang in the Sunshine. Seems Gale would spend a year with the guy, but then “be on her way.” Why a year? I never understood that arbitary limit. If things were good, why not stick around?

In about two weeks, the sweet little Fiat 500e that I’ve enjoyed every day since January 19th is going away. It’s staying here for three months, which is only a quarter of a year, but it’s way longer than the one  week that has been the standard visitation period for the last 1,150 plus cars I’ve sampled over the last nearly quarter century.

What  hurts is that I’ve really fallen for this little car. Over a couple thousand miles, to work and back, off for an errand or a meal or a band practice, orchestra rehearsal, or trip to the post office, little Fidelio, as I call him, has not failed me. When I walk up to him in the parking lot, I still enjoy his retro styling, based on the original, popular 500 of the 1950’s through mid 70’s–Italy’s “Beetle.”Funny, in a way, that Britain’s popular little postwar car, the Mini, is with us in 2016 too, re-imagined for modern times. Like a European 50th high school reunion.

I love Fidelio’s light blue paint, an intentionally retro shade. His silver plastic hubcaps look like alloy wheels but are hubcaps just the same, and appropriately so. Small, round headlamps and the proportions of the face give Fidelio a Boston Terrier kind of expression. He’s not grinning like a latter day Mazda or a 1950’s chrome mouthed Buick, but he seems happy and content.

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Fidelio’s interior is perfect for me, a slim 5-8 man. For being a little car, a Fiat 500e is a tall one, too, so headroom is generous for me–and would be for taller folks, too. The seats sit up high and firm, in a vinyl and sport cloth with jaunty red stripes.

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The dash features numerous chrome rings around pretty much everything from the instruments to the climate and radio controls to the gleaming door handles that lock when you push them towards the door.

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In an age of dull gray, plain tan, and somber black interior shades, my little Fiat enjoys a broad stroke of white. The dash panels mimic the painted ones of the original cars, and bring back a nostalgic pang for cars of my youth, with their expanses of painted metal and projecting light switches and radio knobs. All dangerous, but we’re talking about feelings here.

One thing about an electric car–especially, perhaps this one. It’s very very quiet in there when you’re rolling down the road–even at freeway velocities. Someone said recently something about double-insulated glass, but I can say that the nicer-than-I-expected audio system delivers crisp, clear, balanced sound on my favorite FM station–KCSM Jazz 91, as well as my favorite Sirius XM Satellite Radio selections.

Electric motors spin contentedly, and don’t vibrate like gas engines do. When you press the right-side pedal, Fidelio just moves out, quickly. The torque in the single-speed transmission is surprising and delightful, and the extra weight of hundreds of pounds of lithium-ion battery beneath you guarantees a low center of gravity. While most errands are in town and back and forth to work, I got out on to a few curving back roads now and again, and was once again amazed by the handling and just plain fun of this little beast.

Numbers come up in regular car stories for things like engine horsepower, cargo capacity, and fuel economy, along with Government efficiency ratings. In an electric car like Fidelio, it’s all about range. Sure, there’s a speedometer, but you really want to know how far you can go, all based on battery charge. Fidelio’s ingeniously simple center dial displays battery percentage off fullness both graphically with a green left parenthesis and with a number (85%, for example). At the bottom of the dial is the range display, big and bold.

What’s funny is, sometimes the range number grows while you’re using power. It means your average is improving based on your recent driving. Downhill, or stop-and-go? That means you’re generating new electricity and using little stored energy. Flying along at 65 on  the freeway, especially uphill, takes it away more quickly. There’s a little arrow that goes up or down (or is invisible) to indicate the trend.

To keep the range numbers good, I charged my car at work on a Level 2 charger in front of my building. Level 2 means 240 volts. I can fill up the battery from around half full, which it usually is by the time I’ve commuted home and back to work, before lunchtime. Then, with my EV driver courtesy, I move Fidelio aside for another company employee.

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Charging becomes a routine. You wave your little card in front of the ChargePoint bollard, it beeps, then you plug in the large handle which feels a bit like a gas filler, and then verify the machine is charging. Then, walk away. ChargePoint notifies me with a text message when it notices that Fidelio isn’t absorbing any more charge.

Sometimes, I’ll charge overnight at home at lowly 120–Level 1. It can take 12 hours to do what 4 hours does on 240. But it means I have a full battery to use on the weekends.

Over my two and a half months of driving, I’ve had to use our family gas burner a few times for trips to visit the grandchildren, or a bass lesson 50 miles away. But nearly always, Fidelio is available and steps up to the job.

My upright bass, which I play and also use to measure automotive cargo capacity, fits in the back when I flip down the second row seats. It just barely makes it, and only at a particular angle. But it works. I can also carry a bass guitar and a practice amplifier. If I need my big amplifier–it won’t fit. If it’s an electric only gig, everything slides right in. This is a small car, but a practical one.

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It’s hard to think of anything annoying about Fidelio, but there are a couple of nits. First of all, the flip-out “switchblade” key often opens in my pocket. Also, the sunvisors are pathetically slim and short, so you’re of luck if the sun is low in the sky as you drive north or west. The Bluetooth-connect, voice-activated telephone dialer works fine for calling numbers in your phone, but if you need to dictate the numbers, it suddenly becomes deaf. And that’s the end of my complaints.

Regarding efficiency, while gas and hybrid cars get fuel economy ratings in MPG (miles per gallon), the electrics get MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent). I’ll state my final numbers when my test is over, but at this point, I’m averaging around 135 MPGe–even better than the government ratings. I’ve seen as high as 178 MPGe, depending on the trip. I’d say that’s EXCELLENT.

I’d really like to just keep driving in the sunshine with Fidelio for years, but he has to go back to the press fleet and please some other folks. I got him with 79 miles on the clock–just break in time. It’s like he’s mine. I could go lease my own 500e, but I think I’ll wait to see if the new Chevrolet Bolt EV will deliver at least some of the zip and an honest 200 mile range. Then it would be perfect. But despite the Chevy’s attractive, up-to-date look and game-changing range number, the Bolt and the other EVs can’t touch Fidelio for driving experience and cuteness.

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New Flavors of Hybrid – Kia Niro

2017 Niro

2017 Niro

There are lots of ways to drive “greener,” and Kia is about to provide another. Already offering the Kia Soul EV all-electric hatchback and Sonata Hybrid, they now proudly present the Niro hybrid. About the size of the popular hybrid poster child Toyota Prius, it’s a crossover, so it’s taller, and looks like what folks increasingly are buying. Compact crossovers are hot hot hot. Great timing for Kia. We’ll find out more about this new entry as it hits the market later this year, but it looks like a winner so far.

Read the linked article above for details, but it looks like it’ll hit the 50 mpg target, competitive with the Prius. And like all Kias and Hyundais today, it has the creative eye of Peter Schreyer, former Audi design director, upon its fresh sheetmetal. Likely to be priced competitively, it just makes the choice harder (and better) this year.

 

 

The Electric Car Club

When I started testing my little blue Fiat 500e a couple of months ago, I thought, that as part of my EV awareness, I’d attend meetings of some electric car enthusiast organization.I pictured meeting in a place like an old Hof Brau, and standing in the parking lot before going inside for beers and roast beef, looking over each others’ cars in the fading sun.

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What I was picturing was the car club of the past. I met the Corvair owners club years ago that way.

Today, the action is in three places, for me. The first is at work, where I’ve created the Electriccars channel on Slack–our company instant messenger application. We have 12 members–most of the electric car drivers in the company. We post photos, talk about range and what we want to buy someday, and we’re pretty well represented. We have drivers of Teslas, Leafs, Volts, A Ford Focus Electric and a Fusion Hybrid, BMW i3s, and a couple of us with Fiats. Here’s our charging array. Fidelio, my blue Fiat 500e, is at the top of the picture, because my battery is full, and I’ve moved aside to let another driver charge up. With 15 EVs and 6 spots, it’s the only way to make it work.

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I’ve had numerous conversations in the hallway and in our “Cantina” food and party area. One guy proudly showed me his Volt app, where he could get lots of stats on his mileage and driving efficiency. Another wanted to talk about the differences between the different EVs on the market–or the difference between living with a plug-in hybrid versus a pure electric. Another is eagerly awaiting his opportunity to put money down on a Tesla Model 3–that he’ll receive in two years. That’s patience.

The second way I meet EV drivers is at charging stations. While most of my charging happens at home or at my six-slot office charger, I had a fine conversation with two Leaf drivers in front of the Whole Foods recently. A fellow auto journalist drove to meet me for lunch in his EV test car, and showed me where he went to plug it in while we were eating.

There’s lots of EV action online. I belong to the Fiat 500e group on Facebook. For now, I have a car to show photos of, and stories to relate. So do they. There are proud new car photos, oddball charging shots, and interesting customizations. One guy installed new, more powerful, but less energy-consuming, headlamps. Another posted a shot of his little Fiat next to a giant Chevy Suburban. I had recently taken a very similar shot of my colleague’s orange 500e next to the same kind of behemoth, and posted it in reply. We have fun.

Of course there are numerous websites to visit, too. And on Twitter, I post links to this blog, and have picked up a bunch of folks to follow–and who follow me–by going there.

I was expecting more camaraderie between EV drivers on the road, but so far, no-one has waved to me from their car. I, of course notice all of them. Maybe they just like not buying or burning gas and aren’t the social type. More (electric) power to them.

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I did look around for an actual car club, and found the Electric Auto Association. They have various chapters, but from what I can tell, they are the old-fashioned kind of organization. These are the techie guys who used to install dozens of regular car batteries in an old Honda Civic years ago. They are hands-on, and less of a purely consumer group–although I bet that’s changing.

If it were September, I could participate in National Drive Electric Week, but who knows what I’ll be driving by then? I may own my own EV by the time any local events start on September 10.

I love the social part of  being an EV driver. Perhaps it’s the excitement about doing something special that brings some folks together like this. When you drive an electric car, you fit right into the flow of traffic, and especially if you own a model that also has a gas version, you may be invisible to the other drivers. But YOU know you’re battery powered, and that it all makes a difference. Someday, it’ll be the norm.

Another Public Charging Adventure

Today, my wife and I took a trip about 11 miles away to a familiar shopping center. Her goal was eyebrow plucking. Mine was sitting and reading, and investigating a new charging station situated in front of the new Whole Foods grocery. I’d seen it before while shopping and felt it was a good use of my wait time.

I drove up to the nrg eVgo charger and stepped out to see what it wanted for me to use it.

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I’m most familiar with the ChargePoint charging stations, as they’re located at my office, and the Blink Network, which I’ve used occasionally. This new one had two boxes with charging cables hanging on them. The one I approached had two next to each other, one being a quick charge and the other looked like a level 2 charger. Based on that impression, I called the number posted there and tried to set up an account.

I gave the man my name and specifics, and he told me I could use a number he’d provide via email to log in to their website and finish the process. He also said he could give me access right away for today. Great.

I reached for the cable, and when I pulled it out, saw that it was the OTHER kind of quick charge plug–the SAE Combo (CCS) type. The other one was a CHAdeMO version. Because my car didn’t have a quick charger, I was out of luck.

Luckily, I was just doing research and didn’t need the charge to get home, but I never got that confirming email from eVgo, so I guess we’re not going to be doing any business for now.

I understand that a quick charger is great for visits to the grocery store, rather than a slower Level 2 style, but it pays to check carefully before parking and hoping. I did learn from the company’s website that they have other  locations nearby with (they say) Level 2 chargers available as  well. It’ll be interesting to see if this company grows and become handy quickly. The other two charging cables, by the way, were plugged into the noses of Nissan Leafs, which do have the CHAdeMO charger.

 

 

Make the Right Choice – Drive Electric

Choices. It’s what everyone is thinking about now, as we plunge headlong into the 2016 Election season. No matter which side you’re on, you have to agree that the people who support each candidate are often vehement about it. People are deciding, and it’s early, but you could say that they are choosing with their hearts and not their heads. He or she is MY CANDIDATE, which means the other candidates are stupid or totally misguided.

At least it looks a lot like that to me.

Regardless, when people go out car shopping, they are bringing all their old habits of living and thinking along with them. They may have practical concerns, but car buying is still an emotional process. And that’s why most  people don’t go out shopping for electric cars.

The best reason to buy and drive electric is to protect the planet from the worst effects of climate change. Not burning as much carbon is better. There may be some arguments against this, but they are not coming from anyone who is informed about the situation we’re in.

Besides removing the combustion under the hood, electric cars are smooth and quiet. And, they deliver surprising torque from the get-go. The cars need next to no service, too. Forget oil changes or radiator flushes or hose or belt repairs. They cost less to run. Nice.

So, where’s the rub? Well, you can’t get some of the electrics everywhere. I live in California, and there are plenty here. And, the prices can look expensive. But with great leasing deals, that’s a non-issue.

Driving range can be seen as a concern, but if you have one internal combustion car in the family, it doesn’t have to be. My life of 36-mile-round-trip commuting and local errands perfectly suits Fidelio, my blue Fiat 500e.

What about charging? Do you need to look for chargers and doesn’t it take a long time.? Well, yes, it does take a long time, but if you use Level 2 (240-volt) chargers, it’s much less. But, as a long-time expert in EVs told me, you charge the car while it’s just sitting, doing nothing. It’s no big deal. I normally charge Fidelio at work, and he’s done by lunchtime. Then, I go park him elsewhere, freeing up the charger for the next person. The time to do that is the time I’d spend in a gas station. Granted, it may be more often, but it’s completely manageable.

So, what’s the deal? Maybe it’s just that many people don’t know how great it is to drive an electric car. So… If you have one, take out your friends and family! Give them a chance to see your EV in action. Joel Levin, of Plug-in America, says exactly that. Make it a viral experience. You show your neighbor, who then buys one. Then, the neighbor’s cousin visits and buys one. It takes knowledge and experience to recognize the benefits and pleasures of EVs. And if a pure EV is simply too much, say for a young couple in an apartment who need one all-purpose car, then look at the vast number of hybrid options.

It’s up to us to do something. Choose wisely.