Audi A3 E-Tron: Step One

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The Audi A3 e-tron gives the premium German marque an entry point to electric motoring. Based on the previous generation Sportback wagon, it combines a 150-horsepower 1.4-liter gas engine with a 102-horsepower 75 kW electric motor to make a combined 204 horsepower drivetrain. With 258 lb.-ft. of torque, it pulls the compact wagon from 0-60 in 7.6 seconds.

Electric vehicles, even half-electric ones, use the MPGe rating, which offers an efficiency standard that you can use to compare competing vehicles. For example, you can measure the A3 against the plug-in Prius or the Chevrolet Volt. The A3 e-tron earns an 86 MPGe rating using electricity and gasoline, and a 39 MPG with gasoline only. I averaged 96.4 MPGe during my test week. The window sticker claims I’ll save $3,750 a year in fuel costs over the average new vehicle.

EPA fuel economy ratings are 8 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas. The 138 grams per mile of CO2 is lower than most cars, but, of course, higher than an all-electric car.

One way to compare plug-in hybrids is by the range they can drive on electricity alone. The A3 claims 17 miles, and in my 18-mile commute, I found that to be accurate. Just before I arrived at my office, the gauge indicated the switchover. So, I plugged in and had enough to get almost home, and so it went. By charging at both ends, I used very little gas for commuting.

Charging is simple. Plug in to standard 240-Volt (level 2) chargers at work or in other public places, or use your own household current, which is 120 Volts (level 1).  It’s an eight-hour process at home, comfortably overnight. On a level 2 charger, it’s just two and a quarter hours. You won’t be hogging the chargers while others wait. They’ll appreciate that.

The A3 is on the lower end of the range listing for plug-ins, but it still makes a big difference. The Chevy Volt offers an honest 53 miles of charge before switching over to its gas engine, which generates electricity to run the electric motor. The Audi is typical of a hybrid, using the gas engine and electric motor interchangeably as needed.

The A3 e-tron offers four driving modes, which you select on the dash. EV mode uses the electric motor only. In Hybrid mode the car’s computer picks the most efficient power source for the driving conditions—EV, gasoline, or both. In Hold Battery mode, the car is a hybrid only, saving the battery charge for driving all-electric later. The Charge Battery mode uses the engine to charge the battery while you’re driving at freeway speeds.

I ended up taking a six-hour round-trip to an exciting but farther away than I thought microbrewery, so for that trip, the A3 behaved like a normal hybrid car. And that’s what distinguishes a plug-in from an all-electric car. You can pretty much go wherever you want to, but drive hyper efficiently when you stay local.

The 8.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack sits under the rear seat, and because it doesn’t take up any cargo space, the wagon is fully usable to carry your stuff. Other plug-ins like the Prius and Volt are hatchbacks, so the A3 has an advantage with a lower sill for easier placement of, say, a bass, in my case.

The A3 Sportback wears a new name: e-tron, which Audi will use to identify other, future electric and hybrid models, too. For now, it looks and feels like an A3, which is a good thing. The premium craftsmanship inside, simply presented at this level, is pleasant and feels substantial and carefully thought out. My Misano Red Pearl Effect test car greeted me with a sweet leather aroma when I opened the door for the first time. The switchgear works nicely, the eyeball vents swivel satisfyingly, and the it’s a pleasant place to be.

The A3 e-tron comes in three levels: Premium, Premium Plus, and Prestige. Base price is $37,900. My tester was a Premium Plus, which added $4,100 to the tab. That got me extras like 17-inch, 15-spoke alloy wheels, 3-D optic inlays, the Audi music interface, heated front seats, and aluminum window surrounds. The $2,600 Technology package added a navigation system, Audi Connect online services, and more. They charged $575 for the fancy red paint (a typical Audi upsell). The bottom line came to $46,100.

If you’re an Audiphile, this is your high-efficiency choice. An all-electric e-tron model should be here soon.

Volvo XC90 T8 Hybrid – Unique

The all-new Volvo XC90

The all-new Volvo XC90 is a handsome, luxurious, comfortable, fuel efficient, and expensive large crossover. All all new, it’s a huge step forward for the Chinese-owned Swedish brand.

The regular gasoline versions are badged T6’s, but my car I tested was a Volvo XC90 T8, the world’s first seven-passenger plug-in hybrid SUV.

All XC90s share a potent 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that uses both super- and turbo-charging to put out 313 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. The T8 adds an electric motor and a battery pack to deliver limited electric-only motoring and a total of 400 horsepower and 472 lb.-ft.  of torque. I drove my 18-mile commute entirely on electricity once, but normally achieved just under that. The center screen shows graphical and digital statistics, and where the power is flowing.

Hybrid system settings are Hybrid, the default mode, which switches back and forth from fuel to charge. Pure mode means all-electric. Power mode combines the motor’s instant torque and the gas engine’s size to provide V8 level performance. Save mode lets you retain the battery charge for later use.

An EV range in the teens is typical for plug-in hybrids, and remarkable for a 5,059-lb. vehicle. The EPA gives it a 53 MPGe rating (compare that to other battery vehicles). In pure EV mode, it’s much better. Gas-only delivers 25 MPG. My tester averaged 22.7 mpg over 63 hours and 1,578 miles, including previous journalist loans.

Green scores are 7 for Smog and a split number for the Fuel Economy/Greenhouse Gas rating—7 for MPG and an 8 for CO2.

Pricing for the T8 starts at $69,050. My tester, with the $3,500 Inscription level upgrade, plus a raft of safety, convenience, and style packages and features, came to $84,005. That’s a big price tag, but this car is a great experience.It’s filled with luxury features, including an Orefors crystal shift knob and some beautiful food trim.

The all-new Volvo XC90

The XC90 T8 was named Green Car Journal’s Luxury Green Car of the Year, and is part of what is a welcome resurgence for Volvo, a brand with a historic commitment to safety, today’s latest technology, and now, a greener way to move a family of seven.

Yeah, it’s not a full-fledged EV, but it’s a move in the right direction. I’m look forward to Volvo offering a full EV before too long.

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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.

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!

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.

Fidelio the Fiat 500e – The Bonding Begins

Part of the reason for borrowing an all-electric car for three months instead of a week was to not only evaluate the practicality of living with it, but also to see how my feelings would develop. And, as I kind of expected, with my daily driving of a little light-blue Fiat 500e named Fidelio, I am getting attached.

And why not? For driving to work, the car’s superb. Errands–excellent. I’ve traveled 15 miles to the vet, 20 to the hair stylist, 11 miles to the shopping center. My trip to work is 36 miles round trip. So, other than an occasional need to go further, I’m happy.

Here’s how the day works. Because I charged Fidelio at work the day before, when I start him up at 7 a.m., he’s got 45-55 miles of range on the clock, without on the home charger overnight. That means he’s normally facing in toward the garage. If he’d been on the home charger, I’d have backed him in to get the charging socket closer. It’s on the right rear fender, where the gas filler is if you have an engine instead of a motor.

I walk out my gate and there he is. What a cute little car. I’m glad I ordered the retro blue paint and white trim. I push the bottom button on the key fob and open the little hatchback. I place my briefcase back there on its side and close the lid. I pull out 5 dollars for the bridge toll, open the door, and slide in. He’s facing out below–must have been on the charger!

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Yes, I could use Fastrak and ride in the carpool lane, but this little test car isn’t mine and I don’t have the California stickers. It’s OK.

The way to work is pretty much all downhill or level, so the range gauge–a digital display at the bottom of the large circle speedometer–barely changes for the first few miles. In fact, it’s sometimes higher at the bottom of the hill to my house than at the top.

As always, the motor barely emits a sound–just a slight whine as you accelerate. That means that Sirius XM Satellite radio or FM–or Bluetooth streaming from my phone–is crisp and clear. The audio system in the Fiat 500e is pretty good, with woofers in the door and tweeters on the front windshield pillars.

Fidelio flies along through traffic. It does start to get congested as we get closer to the approach to the San Mateo Bridge. But, unless I have an early appointment, I just relax. The white, black and chrome dash is very pleasant to the eye. I especially like the little blue crescent of door trim that’s at the corner where the door and the dash meet. Of course, you can’t see any of the outside of the car from inside, with the short, sloping hood and white, rather than blue, mirrors.

Today, I noticed a dark gray 500e ahead of me. I hoped to catch the driver’s eye and wave to a fellow EV driver, but to no avail. I did get a dark gray Tesla launch itself into traffic a few minutes later, in front of me. He waved–probably to “thank” me for letting him cut in front of me.

We finally get on to the bridge approach, and it slows to a crawl again. No problem. It means I’m charging the battery every time I touch the brake pedal, and I’m using nothing while I’m sitting immobile. Traffic opens up again near the tolls. I drive up to pay my money and always hope the toll taker will say, “Nice car,” or “Is that an electric car?” They never do.In fact, today’s guy literally let out a big yawn! I think that job must be one of the worst.

Even the other electric drivers usually don’t seem to want to display the sense of shared coolness that I feel. I feel less like a journalist and more like a pioneer. There is a sense of being part of a secret society when you drive an all-electric car.

So few of us are driving them now, but we’re right in the heart of traffic, with everyone else. Our cars look normal, especially if there’s a standard gas version available, like with the Fiat 500. But under the hood, they’re really different, and drive with a smooth, quick, silence that’s enjoyable and environmentally cleaner. Some day, we’ll be the norm.

I feel a special sense of camaraderie with Fiat 500e drivers, and belong to a Fiat 500e Facebook group, but we really are more united by the kind of car we drive–and the decision that informed the acquisition–than by the brand. That doesn’t stop me from proudly wearing my FIAT cap, of course.

My exit is approaching and I slow down to take the curve. I can see my office building now ahead, with our company’s name at the top. The six chargers stand at attention along the side as I approach, and I smile when I notice that most of the spaces are free. I back into one, wave my little card in front of the ChargePoint charger, plug in, and I’m off to work. So pleasant, despite the traffic.

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The fueling pattern is different with an electric car. I plug in every morning at work, five days a week, to top off the battery. It normally takes a little over two hours to charge. I usually receive a text message from ChargePoint in late morning telling me Fidelio appears to be full, so I run down and move him out so another EV driver can use the charger. It’s EV etiquette–we have more than a dozen EV and plug-in drivers at my company sharing six spots.

The thing is, with a gas Fiat 500, I’d probably drive through the gas station once a week and spend five minutes filling up. So, the amount of time I need to do something with my EV is minimal, but it’s spread out over the week, and takes advantage of times the car is just sitting there. It’s the same with home charging, except that for me as an EV borrower, not owner, I still don’t have Level 2 240-volt charging at home. So, it takes more like 11 hours to do what 2-1/2 hours will do at work. But the car is just sitting in the driveway, so who cares?

I really like my blue baby. I may even love it. It’s cute, it’s comfortable, it’s nearly silent, and I feel good about cutting my emissions so much, so easily. I have carried my basses and my amplifier to gigs and rehearsals. The only issue that could come up is if I decide to play both kinds of bass at the same gig–or if the gig is 40 miles away. But I’ll work that one out. The other band members all have gas cars I can share. Meanwhile, it’s a pleasure to drive electric now.

What’s MPGe? Why Should I Care?

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When the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began measuring the fuel economy of cars decades ago, they created a miles-per-gallon (MPG) rating. It was designed to be posted on the Monroney (window) sticker, so consumers could compare different cars when they were shopping.

However, what happens when you have a car powered completely or partially by electricity? How do you measure a “gallon” of volts? The agency had to find a way to measure all energy, as a “measure of the average distance traveled per unit of energy consumed.”

So, in 2010, in response to the arrival of the new Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle, the EPA came up with the MPGe rating–miles-per-gallon-equivalent. See this Wikikpedia entry for more detailed information.

I went to my favorite comparison/information hangout online–fueleconomy.gov–and set up a comparison between four kinds of cars, including my Fiat 500e. The Fiat represented a pure electric vehicle, I listed the Chevrolet Volt as a plug-in hybrid, the Toyota Prius as a regular hybrid, and the popular Honda Civic sedan as an efficient “regular” internal combustion engine (ICE) car.

Here’s what I got. Check it out for yourself. There are lots of numbers there, but here’s what I take away from it all.

  1. Electric cars have only the MPGe/MPG score, and it’s much higher than the MPG scores. The Fiat was tops in this comparison, with the Volt just below, with the two non-plugin cars way below. Use this number to compare all-electric cars to each other (and check the range, too).
  2. Hybrids are much more fuel efficient than regular cars. Keep in mind that the Prius has the best fuel economy of any hybrid car, and the Civic is one of the most fuel-efficient ICE cars.
  3. Driving the Volt in electric mode–keeping your trips within the battery range and recharging regularly–delivers nearly as good a rating as the Fiat. Driving it long distances using only gasoline isn’t much better than the ICE Civic. But if you’re the typical driver, and make sure to charge up regularly, and you’ll get the best of both worlds.
  4. Hybrids, like the regular Prius, don’t plug in (there is a plug-in version too). They’re given an MPG number based on overall performance, because they switch back and forth between gasoline and electricity, depending on driving conditions. The numbers look pretty good, though.
  5. The Prius, in this four-car comparison, saves the most per year compared to the average car. Remember, there are lots of other factors, though. Still interesting.
  6. Notice there’s a “per 100 miles” measurement in the same box that contains the MPGe and MPG number? That’s where the “equivalent” comes in. The Fiat, for example, shows 30 kWh per 100 miles while the Honda shows 2.9 gallons per 100 miles. The question then comes–how much does it cost for 2.9 gallons of gas or 30 kWh of electricity? My experience, using a public charger at work, is that I can get around 15 kWh (about 50 miles worth) for a couple of bucks. Gas, in California now, is currently running about $2.25 a gallon. Doing the math, the Honda costs roughly $3.50 for gas for the $2.00 the Fiat runs. Charging my car at home, at night, would likely run a bit less.

Are you enjoying that comparison chart? Good. Now, click the Energy and Environment tab and you’ll see where electric cars come out on top for greenhouse gas emissions. The Fiat gets a lovely zero grams per mile. The Volt is mighty good at 51. The Prius more than triples that to 170, while the Civic gets 256. Many larger cars can emit 400 or 500 grams per mile. So even downsizing from a large to a smaller ICE car is an improvement.

Yes, it’s true that an electric car must use electricity that’s generated someplace using some method that could cause an environmental impact. And there’s the fuel that went into the tank of the transporter truck that delivered your EV to the dealership. Ideally, you generate power from solar panels on your roof, although remember, some energy was consumed to produce the panels. If your power is generated using hydroelectric, wind, or a giant solar farm, you’re good. Natural gas–not as good. Coal–not good at all. Here in California, there are no  coal-powered plants (as far as I know), but PG&E, the utility, could  buy power from another company that used coal to generate it. We have some nuclear power generation here, too.

Still, at this point, there are many fine reasons to drive an electric car, if it fits your lifestyle. But even driving a Prius cuts your carbon footprint down significantly. If you work it right, a plug-in hybrid, like the Volt, would be even better than the Prius (the more you use the electric and the less you burn fuel). And if all else fails, you can still drive a Civic instead of a Cadillac and reduce your environmental impact a bit.

Until we have affordable electric cars with a 300-mile range, these other options–plug-in hybrids, hybrids, and highly efficient regular gas-burners, will have a place in the automotive market.