EVs, Hybrids and Green Events of 2017

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For 2017, I decided to focus my attention on hybrid and plug-in vehicles. Over the 12 months, I tested 35 cars, of which more than half – 20 – were either full EVs, plug-in hybrids PHEVs), or hybrids. About half of the cars were hybrids, and a quarter were EVs or PHEVS. This was a big change, as for the last 25 years, I’ve driven a car a week (52 a year).

My EV focus was enhanced when I began submitting content to www.cleanfleetreport.com in addition to my newspapers in 2016. I also rejuvenated this blog, which I had originally filled with impressions of the Fiat 500e that I borrowed for the first quarter of 2016.

The centerpiece of this new EV emphasis was my 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, which I leased on January 8 and have put nearly 10,000 miles on over the year, much of it during those weeks when I wasn’t driving a test vehicle.

I also ventured into covering events, including National Drive Electric Week, during which I hosted an event at my office and I attended two other ones. At the Cupertino NDEW event, I met Greg Bell, who introduced me to Acterra, an organization that promotes EV use and other environmental efforts. I attended two Acterra events where important speakers delivered valuable content, which I captured in two articles that appeared both in my blog and in Clean Fleet Report—and on Acterra’s website as well. At the end of the year, I sampled Gig Car Share, a ridesharing service that uses Ridecell software.

While reading An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, Al Gore’s second book (and movie), I saw a story about a man who changed careers in order to work in the green industry—and learned he was local. I later met with Wei-Tai Kwok over lunch and toured his company, Amber Kinetics, which manufactures energy storage devices.

I plan to continue my green vehicle and industry focus in 2018, with additional expansion into anything that contributes to a greener future—interviews, research, and more vehicle drives, of course.

Here’s an alphabetical list of the EV and hybrid vehicles I tested in 2018, with brief summaries. 

Note: These stories, except for a couple that aren’t written yet, are available on Clean Fleet Report.

Acura MDX Hybrid – A big cruiser, this car has significantly improved fuel economy, an incremental improvement over the regular gasoline model.

BMW i3  – Still odd looking (it grows on you), this car is a pure EV, but can be had with a small “range extender” gas engine. My tester had the extender, but I never used it. The ’17  upped the estimated range from 72 to 114 – a much more useful proposition.

Chevrolet Bolt EV – The Bolt is the first “affordable” pure EV with a truly usable 238-mile EPA range. I love mine, and have achieved more than 200 miles of range with no problems, other than an occasional glitch to the entertainment system (which recovered automatically). Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, among other honors.

Ford C-Max Hybrid – This European design is a comfortable and usable car, but lost some favor when its initial fuel economy numbers turned out to be overly optimistic. Its EPA numbers are 42 mpg overall, about double what the gasoline version of its sister vehicle—the Fusion—gets. The Energi model, which I didn’t test, has a plug and a larger battery for local all-electric motoring.

Ford Fusion Hybrid and Energi – This handsome sedan uses the same drivetrain as the C-Max, and offers both hybrid and Energi (plug-in) versions. I tested both. The hybrid averaged 41 mpg while the Energi got 101.4 MPGe, using nearly no gasoline at all.

Honda Clarity PHEV – This plug-in hybrid sedan is a brand-new effort from Honda. Initial impressions (I’ve had it two days) are it’s handsome on the inside, despite plastic wood trim, but a little weird on the outside. I got 43 miles of range with the initial charge, which was enough for a Saturday’s worth of errands. The Clarity also comes as a hydrogen fuel cell version (I drove it briefly at an event), and a full EV version with a disappointingly small 89-mile range. I plan to test these other two Claritys in 2018.

Hyundai Ioniq – I drove the full EV and the Hybrid versions of this all-new car. If you want a Prius or a Leaf but hate the wacky styling, this is your car. The EV has a stellar EPA rating of 136 MPGe combined. A plug-in hybrid is due in 2018.

Kia Optima PHEV – This handsome large/midsize sedan has a 27-mile EV range, so I used no gasoline all week to commute. Only when I ranged further did I dip into the tank, so I averaged 99.9 mpg during my test week.

Kia Niro – This attractive and right-sized crossover makes sense as a hybrid, and is now coming out as a plug-in hybrid. I drove the entry-level FE and top-of-the-line Touring. I got 43.8 mpg in the Touring and 48.2 mpg in the FE. There was about a $7,000 difference between them. A pure EV version would be a game-changer.

Lexus ES 300h – This traditional sedan adds a bit of luxury to the hybrid package. I earned 33.1 mpg during my test week, a bit below the EPA estimates. My option-packed tester listed at more than $48,000.

Toyota Camry Hybrid – I drove both the 2017 version and the all-new 2018 model. The ’17 scored a disappointing 28.9 mpg, but the ’18 hit 37.9 mpg, and is all-new, inside and out.

Toyota Highlander Hybrid – Toyota put its hybrid platform under a family-size crossover, and added some efficiency to it. I averaged 25.0 mpg; the gasoline model I tested a few years ago hit 20.6, so that’s a nice improvement.

Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell – Odd looking, but drives like a nice big sedan, although it’s not as big inside as it looks. Essentially an all-electric car you never plug in, you do need to fuel it, and hydrogen fuel is pricey and hard to find! But, if you lease one now, Toyota picks up your fuel tab for the three-year term (up to $15,000).

Toyota Prius Prime – This is the plug-in version of the latest Prius, and it slightly tempers the radical styling front and rear. Its 25-mile range is useful for all-electric commuting, while its hybrid personality lets you drive wherever you want to with no problems. I averaged 70.5 MPGe during my test week.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid – As a compact crossover SUV, the RAV4 is positioned at the center of the car market now. As a hybrid, it has 28 percent better fuel economy numbers than its gasoline version.

VW e-Golf – The Golf is a wonderful driving car, but the original e-Golf’s range was a paltry 83 miles. The new one, with minor styling enhancements and larger battery, is boosted to 125 miles, which is much more usable.

These are the events, interviews, and services I covered in 2017.

Western Automotive Journalists Media Days – This writers group, which I co-founded in the early 1990s, has a wonderful annual event that combines on-road driving, a day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and a festive banquet. Auto scribes and manufacturer representatives connect and renew their assocations. I tested a number of EVs at this event and as always, had lots of fun.

Brett Hinds (Ford) interview and Third Industrial Revolution screening – Ford Motor Company sponsored a screening of Third Industrial Revolution, a film based on the book by Jeremy Rifkin. The film features Rifkin himself making the important points of this visionary tome to a young audience. Hinds is the Chief Engineer for Electrified Power Systems, and in our 1-on-1 interview he described what Ford has planned for the future.

National Drive Electric Week – This annual event’s purpose is to expose more people to the virtues of electric motoring by having owners show off their cars. As a Bolt driver, I hosted one at my company during the week, and attended two Saturday events, where I participated and networked like crazy. Sponsored by Plug In America, the Sierra Club, the Electric Auto Association, and the Nissan Leaf.

Silicon Valley Reinvents the Wheel – This annual event, cosponsored by the Western Automotive Journalists and the Autotech Council, is jam packed with speakers, booths, cars, and a lot of excitement. It’s a great place to network and learn what’s coming.

Opening of New Hydrogen Station in San Ramon – Hydrogen fuel cells in electric vehicles are an exciting but complicated technology. A big issue is infrastructure, so the opening of station #29 (of a planned 100) is a step forward. I used this station later when I tested the Toyota Mirai.

Steve Westly Acterra event – The former California Controller had a lot of positive things to say about the growth of sustainable power generation and the rise of EVs.

Carl Pope Acterra event – On his book tour for Climate of Hope, which he co-wrote with Michael Bloomberg, Pope spoke of the many challenges and successes of the move to a sustainable energy future.

Gig Car Share test – I heard about Gig Car Share while researching Ridecell, and sampled a vehicle while I was out getting a haircut. If you only need a car occasionally, it’s ideal. Just download the app and you’re on your way. And the cars have bike racks!

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Kia Niro Hybrid Crossover Spotted at the Mall

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I was walking through the mall tonight with my wife, just after purchasing new sheets at Pottery Barn and look what I saw. It’s the new Kia Niro!

I’ve heard about this hybrid crossover for a while now, and expected to see one on the road or at a dealership soon. This one is here to show off.

Kia is smart to introduce a compact crossover, sized between the boxy Soul and the venerable Sportage, that has similar fuel economy to a Toyota Prius. The new Prius, the poster child for hybrids and the highest performing one, fuel economy wise, is an acquired taste visually. What folks seem to want now are crossovers, and the new smaller ones are hot hot hot. So Kia is in the catbird’s seat here.

I sat down in the car, and although I couldn’t get the seat to adjust (the battery, apparently was drained), I could tell that Kia is using the same clear, no-nonsense styling inside, with premium materials, to convey high competence, value for the money, and in the case of a crossover, that ride high feeling.

The Niro has a dual clutch six-speed automatic–not a CVT–so you can feel the gears shift normally and even move them manually. Of course, I didn’t sample that in the mall, but the Niro should at least emit a more sonorous sound than the moan of a CVT.

The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, mated to a 43 hp electric motor, contributes to the overall 146 horsepower. That motor will likely be as smooth and silent as motors are. My understanding is that there will be a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid version.

The young woman managing the display gave me a free Niro bag to carry things in, and took my information for future updates. Of course, I expect to hear from the automotive PR folks at some point soon, but this’ll tell me what interested car shoppers will get.

The thank-you email told me I could download the Niro app and configure a car on my iPad, so I did that. It took a while to download. It shows a musical video of the Niro zooming through a city – with no driver… Is this a look at their future autonomous vehicle?  Then–out to the country! A quick roll through a charging station (not stopping) and onward. You can click a button periodically to get details on the topic they’re presenting, such as Exterior Tour and Fuel Efficiency, all shown to a high-tech beat.

I’ll be looking forward to a real test of this car soon.

4th Generation Prius–Wacky and Vastly Improved

IMG_5614.JPGThe Toyota Prius has been a green car icon for 20 years now (17 in the U.S.).  It’s substantially redone this year for its fourth generation.

The most obvious change is the startling styling. The new Prius is longer, lower, and wider, but not like the mammoth late 1950’s American cars. It’s a radical interpretation of the now classic Prius proportions, with a squinting face and a finned tail. Thanks partially to that shape, the new car has one of the lowest cds (coefficient of drag) in the industry – 0.24.

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Since the second generation 2004 Prius, the interior has been space-age and swoopy, but the 2016 model is vastly improved. The sweep of the soft-touch panels from dash to doors is dramatic, and with a lower cowl and side windows, visibility is better too. The center-mounted instruments sit on a dramatically layered and in piano black panel. My tester’s only odd item was a white plastic center console (and on the steering wheel and dash), which reminded me of a porcelain bathroom sink.

The Prius has always provided an energy flow display, but the new one offers two. The center console houses the big, colorful one, but the little one in the slim band below the windshield helps you monitor when the engine is on. With awareness, you can lift off the accelerator slightly to move from gasoline to electricity. Being always informed lets you drive at the highest efficiency.

As a hybrid, the Prius uses both its 1.8-liter gas engine and two electric motors to move. For 2016, the engine is set to be on less, so the car runs as an EV more. Some components, such as the continuously variable transaxle and power unit, are smaller and lighter, and some body panels, like the hood, are made of lightweight aluminum.

The new Prius dumps the old nickel-metal hydride battery technology for modern lithium-ion. The battery pack is smaller and flatter, so it fits under the rear seat instead of beneath the cargo area, leaving more cargo space.

The EPA economy numbers are improved, at 54 City, 50 Highway, and 52 Combined. I averaged a splendid 57.2 mpg over a busy week. After you turn off the car, the instrument panel briefly displays a rating of your driving efficiency for that trip. I averaged as much as 80.1 mpg a ride. The screen displays a score, say 74/100, and suggests other measures of efficiency, such as lowering the climate control temperature or accelerating more gently. The Green numbers are 7 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas.

Unlike a pure electric, the Prius lets you drive as far as you like with great mpg. However, previous models weren’t a great joy to drive, feeling a bit removed from the road. The new model is greatly improved. Built on the Toyota New Global Architecture, it features a high-strength body structure and a double-wishbone independent rear suspension. This, along with a lower center of gravity, makes day-to-day driving much more engaging.

The new Prius is much quieter inside, thanks to numerous improvements in sound reduction. That benefits music listening, a necessity for the daily commute grind. My tester featured a JBL system with 10 GreenEdge speakers. I played music from a variety of sources, including an easy Bluetooth hookup with my iPhone. There’s a charging spot on the console, but it didn’t work on my iPhone. I think it’s better with Androids.

The Prius comes with the new Toyota Safety Sense technology. This includes a Pre-collision system with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert, Automatic High-beam, and Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. There’s also an Intelligent Parking Assist system available. As you’d expect, the high-tech hybrid is a showcase for Toyota’s other technological breakthroughs.

You can get your Prius in six flavors. The entry point is the Two, at $25,035. The Three model adds more convenience and technology features, and the Four is the top-of-the-line model. The Two and Three are also available in Eco versions, which use weight-saving and technological tweaks to up the fuel economy a bit. At the top is the Four Touring—the ultimate Prius, at $30,835. All prices shown include the “delivery and handling fee.”

My tester came in a bright new color—Hypersonic Red. A $395 option, it makes the car stand out in traffic. My tester, with the Premium Convenience Package ($1,705) and Advanced Technology Package ($1,935), as well as a Four Season Floor Mat Package ($364) totaled up to $33,884.

The Prius Prime, a plug-in version of the Prius, arrives soon, for even great efficiency.

Today, hybrids have an important role in minimizing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Driving a Prius is now more efficient and fun. And the extreme styling does grow on you.

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Seeking Green at the San Francisco Auto Show

As always, I made time during the Thanksgiving long weekend this year to attend the San Francisco Auto Show. The 2015 version was no different than last year’s event. It’s essentially a huge showroom without pesky salespeople–where you can look at all the cars, sit in them, grab a little information, and get exhausted.

This year, I focused on electrics, hybrids, plug-ins, and alternative fuel vehicles, while looking at what’s new, too, and strolling nostalgically past some classic treasures.

The first thing I noticed in the far-ranging Moscone Center was that most cars are none of the above. If you’re lucky, there’s one per brand. Some, like Ford, offer multiple options, but you still have to seek out the environmentally friendly models, and the areas around them were generally not busy.

The big news this year comes from a new Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius. Both were there in multiples.

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The Volt (above) has been totally redesigned, and is both more attractive and more efficient. While the old model was loosely based on a radical concept car, this new Volt looks more like other new Chevys–which is better. It’s also has a bigger range in pure electric mode.

I first saw the Volt as part of the PG&E display, and wore its logo on the side. PG&E wants consumers to understand what buying and living with an electric car means, as the friendly utility that supplies their car-charging juice, and they featured some helpful displays and take-aways.

The company also got a chance to display their hybrid Ford work trucks. According to the PG&E spokesman, who actually works on one of the trucks, the guys just love them.

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Over in Toyota land, several Prii (Priuses) sat next to one Toyota Mirai, the company’s entry in the hydrogen fuel cell segment. The Mirai, for lease to a tiny group of early adopters willing to be beta testers for a car with virtually no places to fill it up, is one of the least attractive vehicles I’ve ever seen, but if and when hydrogen becomes a viable fuel to power automobiles, Toyota hopes to lay claim to the “Prius” of hydrogen cars by starting now.

The new Prius still looks something like the generation two and three models, but has gone wild, much as the latest Camry has, in an effort to refute any accusations of being boring.

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Mind you, the Prius is fabulous for getting there on minimal fuel (an honest 50 miles per gallon), but has never been a sporty ride. The new car, with floating roof, head- and tail lamps that are splattered across the corners of the car, and a dash panel that hides the information away from your eyes, will be polarizing. According to reports I’ve read before getting my hands on one, it is more fun to drive, intentionally. I can’t wait to find out.

If you simply want to save fuel by driving a tiny car, the all-new Smart is here. Looking a bit more substantial, but still like half a car, it is not the highest in fuel economy (although an electric is offered). It is simply the best to park, and is still very cute.

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Where it gets more interesting is in places like Volvo, that now offers a hybrid version of its handsome, all-new XC90 crossover. Winning Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year competition places it more directly in front of potential buyers. The young woman showing it off told me that a pure electric is in the future, pending availability of more powerful batteries for longer range.

The Porsche 918 was there, as was the BMW i8, proving that you don’t have to drive a regular car to conserve fuel. The Porsche will set you back at least half a million dollars, while the BMW is a more “modest” $125K or so. Both surely occupy some teenage boys’ walls next to the Ferraris and Shelby Mustangs.

One note on regular cars. The new Honda Civic was there, and I was looking forward to seeing if it is as huge in person as in photos. The answer is Yes. The sweet little CVCC of 1973 has ballooned into a big sedan that looks like an Accord. Its styling is so bold and carefully rendered to not look cheap that it appears overblown and is hard to remember.

We need Honda to not just give us the Fit (pun avoided), but an even smaller model to compensate for this scary development. Of course, they’ll sell the usual 300,000 Civics to Americans in 2016, anyway. And, if it’s more efficient than an Accord, great! There isn’t a hybrid or electric model available yet.

With my family in tow, we wandered through other areas, including a huge ballroom full of customs, which included late-model BMWs and Subarus as well as a glorious low-riding 1959 Buick and some exquisitely customized muscle cars. Also, on the main floor, behind the Chryslers and Jeeps, the selection of new and historic Aston-Martins was dazzling. The Academy of Art University brought a fabulous assortment of fine classics, from a Stutz worthy of film royalty to a sweet Austin-Healey that looked exactly like one treasured by my dad in the 1960s.

And that is what makes it so challenging, and exciting, to be searching for an automotive answer to our climate problem while appreciating the beloved old internal combustion vehicles. When will a new car show include no more ICE models? Will we still love a 1941 Lincoln Coupe or a 1966 Porsche 911 25 years from now, even if they are part of what’s got us into this mess in the first place?