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.

BMW X3 xDrive30e – Luxury SUV with Some EV Cred

By Steve Schaefer

BMW’s midsize plug-in hybrid SUV lives in the trendy part of the marketplace. In the BMW stable, the X3 is “right-sized,” with the smaller X1 as the entry point and the larger and more expensive X5 and X7 above it.

You can get the X3 xDrive30i, with a gasoline-only powertrain, but opting for the xDrive30e means your vehicle combines a 2.0-liter turbo-charged four-cylinder gasoline engine with an integrated electric motor and a 12-kWh battery. Officially, you can plug in your car and then drive about 18 miles on electricity alone, making a big impact on local trips.

Getting more specific, the X3’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor together generate 288 total horsepower and 310 pounds-feet of torque, good for an under-six-second time to push the 4,586-pound SUV from zero to 60. So, although it’s taller than a 3-Series sedan, it still gives you the performance you seek from a vehicle that wears the blue-and-white BMW roundel.

My tester came in a typical BMW gray shade called “Dark Graphite Metallic.” Numerous other colors are available, including the Phytonic Blue Metallic I’d likely choose. The twin kidney grille sits prominently up front, and the styling is typical of today’s BMWs.

You can get the gasoline-only X3 with rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, but plugins are all-wheel-drive only. This isn’t so much for climbing rocks as providing extra traction in inclement weather and heightened security on the dirt road to your summer cabin.

You’ll know you’re entering a BMW the moment you open the door. The traditional two-tone theme prevails, the nickel-finish metallic trim gleams softly, the Cognac Vernasca leather smells great, and the Fineline Cove Matte Finish wood trim is bumpy and fake-looking. In my tester, the black headliner helped create a cozy feeling while the fat leather wheel was great to grip. BMWs have to look and feel like BMWs or what’s the point?

There’s little downside to adding the electric powertrain, although the base price for the plug-in is $4,600 higher and you lose 1.5 cubic feet of cargo space, since the battery protrudes a little from the cargo hold where it lives. The cargo reduction shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it’s something to be aware of.

A little cargo space is taken up by the battery.

The seventh generation of iDrive delivers a 12.3-inch high-res screen that you can interface with using voice, touch, and haptic controls. There’s all the tech you could want, with some of that complex German engineering that means you have to figure out things rather than just learning them intuitively.

As a luxury brand, BMW follows the “but wait, there’s more” approach to options. My $48,550 test vehicle topped out at $65,020 when all was said and done. Large pieces of this included the M Sport design upgrade ($5,000) and 15-item Executive Package ($4,500), and there was plenty more. Check out the website for details. An upgrade to double-spoke bi-color 20-inch wheels added another $950. I certainly enjoyed the audio upgrade to the Harman Kardon surround sound system ($875).

The whole purpose of having a plug-in hybrid is to increase efficiency, so how do the numbers stack up? The xDrive30e earns 60 MPGe combined city/highway when using gasoline and electricity. If you don’t charge up, the combined number is 24 mpg. If you opt for the all-wheel-drive version of the gas-only xDrive30i, it’s 24 City, 29 Highway, and 26 Combined. The EPA Green scores are 7 for Smog and 9 for Greenhouse Gas for the plugin and 7/5 respectively for the standard gas model. The plugin earns the EPA’s SmartWay designation, while putting out 204 grams of CO2 per mile versus 345 grams for the gas model. That’s not insignificant.

The point being, make sure to plug in the car to get maximum benefits. With the small battery, you should be able to use regular household current in your garage to fill it up overnight—you don’t need to install a more expensive (but faster) 240-volt Level 2 charger.

Cars are meant to be driven, and I hate to say it, but during a pandemic, not a lot of driving gets done. I put few miles on this car but tried to make most of them electric. The motor is responsive, smooth, and silent, as expected. The driving experience is not especially sporty, but the BMW ambiance makes it seem so. If you like BMWs and want a crossover, this is a good option. Competition is fierce in this market segment, and plug-in hybrids are likely to be popular in the 2020s until full EVs take over. This car can give you unlimited travel options with zero range anxiety, however, it is only incrementally helping to solve our climate crisis. It is a good way to learn about plugging in and visiting the gas station less.

PHEV or not PHEV – That Is the Question

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

By Steve Schaefer

2020 Niro PHEV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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!

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.

night

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.

Walgreens

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?

MPGe

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.