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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Another Hydrogen Station Opens

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Along with plug-in electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell cars have a major part to play in the movement away from the internal combustion engine. The latest fuel cell cars look and perform just like “regular cars,” but the impediment to mass adoption is the still fledgling hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

To help remedy that situation, the State of California is building 100 hydrogen fuel stations. As part of that effort, San Ramon (on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay) now hosts station #29.

I attended the ribbon cutting event a few days ago and besides admiring the station’s scenic, convenient location just off a major freeway intersection, I heard speeches by and met with numerous people who represented agencies and companies who made this achievement possible. They included representatives from Toyota (maker of the Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car and owners of the land),  Linde (station builder), various California state agencies, and politicians representing the city of San Ramon and the California Senate and Assembly districts.

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Please read the complete story at Clean Fleet Report. I’ll be testing a Toyota Mirai for a week later this month and will share that here as well.

 

Toyota Mirai – EV Powered by Hydrogen

Electric cars are becoming commonplace, but if you really want to sample the latest technology, drive a hydrogen-powered electric car. That’s what the Toyota Mirai is. Mirai, by the way, means “future” in Japanese.

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I had a chance to spend an hour with a shiny white Mirai yesterday, and it was a very pleasant drive. In fact, it felt pretty much like a nicely turned out midsize luxury sedan.

But this is no ordinary car. It runs solely on electricity, but you don’t get the power by plugging it in. No–the power control unit, tucked under the prominent hood, controls energy from the fuel stack, which is located under the vehicle and manufactures electricity  chemically, like a battery.

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Fuel cells are an interesting and complicated subject I won’t delve into here, but in essence, you put in hydrogen and generate electricity to run a motor. The only byproduct is water–H2O. There’s a button on the dash where you can release the accumulated water, which accumulates at about 1/3 cup per mile. Somehow, in my test, we forgot to use this feature, but the experts who guided me told me that the water is so pure you could drink it (but it’s not recommended).

The Mirai looks a bit ungainly in photographs, but in person it stands strong and proud, wearing Toyota’s latest styling, also seen on the all-new 2016 Prius. No one can accuse Toyota of being plain vanilla anymore. The most noticeable feature from the front is the large “gills,” which I’m told allow more air into the motor area for the fuel cell to stay cool. They are also a different look, and believe me, are more compelling in person.

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The roof has a pillarless, floating look, seen also on the Prius and on a few other cars today, so it’s definitely the latest style. The proportions are masculine in their mass but feminine in their roundness (forgive the stereotypes), but I think the car could appeal to a wide range of folks.

Inside, the Mirai is curves and edges intertwined, with a luxurious feel. The door slams with an authoritative thunk. I learned that the Mirai is assembled in the same plant as the extremely limited and expensive LFA supercar, in Japan, by craftsmen who sweat every detail. The seats feature a complex, compelling stitch pattern, likened to aliens by my guide. They’re covered in SofTex, an artificial but pleasantly pliable leatherlike material.

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The instrument panel features the normal buttons and switches. The climate control uses the touch-sensitive sliders seen in a few other vehicles. Once you get used to them you can just tap to make adjustments. The steering wheel has the usual controls for accessories and speed control. The dash gives you lots of interesting information about how your Mirai is doing.

I peeked in the trunk. It’s tall and wide, but not as deep as a non-electric, since the hydrogen tank takes up a little room back there. No big deal, but you won’t pack any surfboards in there.

My ride was in the western area of San Francisco. I started up on 2nd Avenue and the car accelerated heartily, emitting just a slight whine. The sound is what you’d expect from an EV. I didn’t hear anything that sounded like a fuel cell, as it does its crucial work in silence, apparently. Brakes are nicely modulated, steering has a well weighted feel, and the car feels a lot like a Lexus, appropriate since it shares its platform with one. This is definitely much more car than a Camry or a Prius.

I wound through the San Francisco Presidio and down past Crissy Field, then climbed the steep Divisadero Street hill quietly and effortlessly. Then, I headed west again, returning to where I started, all too soon.

Hydrogen cars are likely to be part of the future automotive solution. If plug-in electric vehicles have a range problem, needing a recharge every 80-100 miles today (excepting Tesla), hydrogen cars have an infrastructure problem. They don’t have a range problem per se, with an EPA rating of 312 miles per tankful, but fueling stations are extremely scarce.

Toyota is investing in building up a network, working with companies such as First Element to set up stations throughout California. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are a few, including one in Hayward, just a couple of miles from my home. I heard yesterday that there’s a station in Harris Ranch (near the Tesla supercharger) that allows San Francisco-to-Los Angeles trips, complete with a rest stop and a tasty meal. Toyota has 20 certified stations in California today.

An issue could arise if you took your Mirai out of state, away from hydrogen fuel and Mirai-certified service locations. Like driving a compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle, fueling will be the issue. Take your other car to see Mount Rushmore.

How about if you have a mechanical issue with your Mirai? You must take it to a Mirai-certified Toyota dealership, which has the proper tools, service bays, and training to take care of the fuel cell. For ordinary things like brakes, you can go to any Toyota shop. There are eight certified Mirai dealerships in California–four in the north and four in the south.

So, what’s the price on this baby? I didn’t see an actual window sticker, but the retail is $57,500. However, consider this. You can buy or lease this car now. The current lease deal is $499/month for 36 months, 12,000 miles a year. Not only do you get California and Federal rebates, but Toyota is offering one of its own. And, as more than icing on the cake, Toyota will issue you a card good for up to $15,000 worth of fuel for the first three years. Service is included for that period too. So, lease the car and you essentially pay nothing but your lease payment for three years. Considering the competitors in the $57,000 range, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and so on, it’s almost a steal.

Yes, as a Mirai driver you’ll have to think about refueling, and you may have to go out of your way. You can’t just pick up and drive to South Dakota on a whim. But, if you do have travel in mind, Toyota offers seven days a year of free rental of another vehicle. So, drop off your Mirai and take, say, a Highlander for a trip.

There are some questions. What will hydrogen cost when you DO have to start paying for it? Currently, it’s made primarily using natural gas, and costs $13-16 a kilogram. The tank holds 5.1 kg, so that’s $65-80 per fill-up. In three years, the cost could drop substantially.

Another issue is, just how environmentally friendly is hydrogen fuel if you need to use natural gas to make it? For now, natural gas is the easiest way, but there are numerous alternatives, including using waste to generate it. See the numerous videos on Youtube for much more information.

When Toyota introduced the Prius in 1996 in Japan (and 1999 in the U.S.), it was a bold venture, and the initial buyers were pioneers. Of course, those cars used regular gasoline, but still, it was a little bit of a risk. Now, in its fourth generation, on an all-new platform, the Prius leads the way in hybrids. Are you ready to be a pioneer, too? The Mirai is at the forefront. And, Toyota has opened its thousands of patents, so other manufacturers will be offering their own hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, helping to make the case for more fueling stations. It’s an  exciting time.