Friday, October 21, 2011

Six Months in Our Nissan LEAF

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I'm excited to say that we've been driving our Nissan LEAF for six months and we still absolutely love it.  The LEAF has performed flawlessly for over 5,000 miles and so far, we've been driving for no fuel cost at all, thanks to our home's 5 kW solar panel array and the Time of Use electrical rates from our utility, Southern California Edison.

As I did last month, I'll take a moment to emphasize how remarkable it is that a car as revolutionary as the LEAF, the first mass produced affordable highway capable electric car, is as reliable as it is.  There have been a few reported problems among the LEAFs owned by members of the MyNissanLEAF online forum, but really only a very few.  Our LEAF has only been back to the Nissan dealer once, and that was for a recommended software update.  Other than that, our LEAF has run absolutely solidly and reliably for half a year and served our family of five as our primary vehicle for that entire time.

Most of our driving is done within 35 miles of our home, so our LEAF works really well as our main car.  Our 2007 Toyota Prius hybrid is our second car, and we've driven it about 590 miles a month for the past three months, a bit more than half as many miles as we've driven the LEAF.  If a planned trip is within the 75 mile round trip range of the LEAF, we take the LEAF.  We only choose the Prius when both drivers need to go to separate destinations, or if the round trip distance to our destination is longer than the LEAF's range.

After six months of having our LEAF as part of the family, our likes and dislikes are pretty clear. The dislikes are few.  I would like to have had the option of power seats to add more adjustments to make it easier to find the most comfortable driving position.  I'd also like to have had the option of leather seats.  Of course we'd like to have about 50% more driving range to make it easier to get to some parts of Los Angeles and San Diego.  The carpets in the car are ridiculously thin and more like a layer of flocking than a carpet, but with good floor mats as a mandatory option, this is a small problem. A bigger problem is the low powered 3 kW on-board charger.  Nissan really needs to increase the capacity of the charger to shorten the time it takes to add some charge en-route to make longer trips more realistic.  On the other hand, the 3 kW charger is just fine for the overnight charging that we usually do.  The range and "remaining fuel" displays should be more accurate and detailed.  Other than some minor gripes about the shape of the glove compartment and the need to make it simpler to shut off the voice guidance for the gps system, that's about all of our dislikes.

As I said, the things we don't like about the car are overwhelmed by what we love about it.  I really like the smoothness and the quiet of the electric power train.  I love the torque of the electric motor that is available as soon as I press the accelerator.  The LEAF really feels faster than it actually is, and it jumps ahead of other cars at a traffic light.  After six months with the car, I still find that I look for opportunities to drive it, and I often go for drives just for fun.  The instrument panel is a festival of technology, with multiple readouts that show how economically I am driving, a gps screen that locates available charge stations if I need them and shows my driving range in real time, a Bluetooth connection for music as well as phone connections, and a smart phone app that lets me check the state of battery charge in real time and instruct the car to begin or end charging or to turn on the climate control so that the air is pre-conditioned before I arrive at the car.  I really like the front seat room for the driver and passenger and the rear seats work really well for our son and daughter-in-law and their baby in a safety seat.  The luggage space under the hatchback works well for folded strollers, diaper bags, folded camp chairs and groceries.  I find the design of the car, both inside and out, to be pleasingly different and fresh.

The ownership experience has been really unusual, economical and fun.  The car has had zero defects from the time of delivery to this date.  We haven't had any scheduled maintenance, and there is none recommended until a 7,500 mile tire rotation and various inspections, and a brake fluid replacement and another tire rotation at 15,000 miles.  So we haven't spent any money on maintenance or repair as yet.  Neither have we spent any money on fuel, as I mentioned above.  I've found it really interesting to track our energy usage and the energy economy of the car, as well as our home's energy costs, including car charging.  Through the MyNissanLeaf online forum, I've found a wealth of information about the LEAF, as well as a group of like-minded LEAF fans, many of whom have become friends that I see at least once a month at gatherings.  Being an early adopter has been energizing and interesting for me, and clearly, owning the LEAF has become a hobby.  I'm able to share with interested people the knowledge that I've gained, and to help guide them to make the decision whether an EV will fit well with their lifestyle.  It has been a lot of fun giving test drives to friends and answering questions about the LEAF in parking lots as we do our shopping, as well as at car gatherings and EV events.  I've also become even more interested in the development of other EVs and alternative fueled cars, and my focus on online news sources has given me some expertise with which to judge new cars being offered by manufacturers.

I don't spend much time advocating for others to consider EVs for the purposes of reducing pollution and to help to reduce the effects of climate change.  I find that in these contentious political times, these are hot button issues that fall on either supportive or deaf ears and I don't expect to convince many to change their views.  But I strongly believe that we need to make changes in the way that we use energy so that the earth that we leave to our children and grandchildren is a healthier one.  I also believe that we need to develop an infrastructure to build and support electric vehicles because oil will certainly not last forever.  Whatever one believes about the wisdom of offshore drilling and drilling in sensitive environments to find cheap oil to feed our world's needs, there will come a time when the oil will be too scarce, too expensive or too damaging to the environment to obtain.  I don't want us to wait until that time before we start using alternative energies for transportation.  I don't understand people who are against electric cars.  At the very least, electric energy is domestic energy from domestic sources.  I think that everyone knows that some of our foreign oil comes from countries that don't have our country's best interests at heart.   If some of us drive electrically, it will leave more oil for others to use, and it will help to lower demand and to lower oil prices.  I think that the solution to our energy needs will be a multi-focal one, in which electric and other alternative fuels will be used where they make sense, alongside fossil fuels for as long as they are abundant.   And it can't be overlooked that in almost all cases, the energy cost of driving an electric car is a fraction, sometimes as little as one tenth the cost of driving a conventional gasoline powered car.

The Numbers:
Month:  September 2011
Total Miles at Month End:  5,193 
Miles Driven in Month:  1,026 miles
Electric Power Used for Charging: 323.0 kWh (measured at wall power source, includes public charging)
Public Charging:
 14.87 kWh

Home Charging: 308.13 kWh
Energy Efficiency, Month of September 3.18 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)

Energy Efficiency, Lifetime:  3.147 miles/kWh (wall to wheels)
Most Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Day in September: 20.9 kWh  (5.5 charging hours)
Least Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day: 8.6 kWh  (2.3 charging hours)
Average Electric Energy Used for Charging in a Charging Day:  13.4 kWh  (3.5 charging hours)
Household Power Used for Month:  728.9 kWh (without car charging)
Total Power Used for Month:  1,037 kWh (includes car charging)
Solar PV Power Generated for Month:  679 kWh
Net Power Used or Sent to Grid for Month:  358 kWh net used
Electric Bill, So Cal Edison, Schedule TOU-D-TEV: 
 -$10.75 (A credit in this amount will be added to our net metering total credit for the year, offsetting future bills for months with lower solar output.)
Solar Net Metering Year Total kWh at Month #7: 237 kWh (Total of 237 kWh net used for the year)

Solar Net Metering Year Total Cost at Month #7: -$368.59 (Total credit for the net metering year to date)
Cost for Charging Car in September:  $0.00
Cost per Mile:  $0.00
Cost for Charging Car, Lifetime: $0.00
Cost per Mile, Lifetime: $0.00

(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost for Charging Car in September: $40.06)
(If We Didn't Have Solar Power, Est Cost per Mile in September: $0.039) 
Average Miles per Driving Day:  36.6miles
Longest Day's Driving:  75.8 miles
Shortest Day's Driving:  10.2 miles
Number of Times we Took the Prius Instead of the LEAF Due to Low Charge: Never
Unexpected Low Charge and Unable to Reach Destination:  Never

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Can't buy an Opel GT in the US? Convert a Saturn Sky!

Opel Sky??
I recently stumbled upon this well-executed conversion of an ordinary Saturn Sky into an Opel GT. The front logo, rear end, space between the seats, and even the center of the wheels were swapped to the Opel logo. The steering wheel still had the Saturn logo, and the seats were still embroidered with the word "Sky", but no one would be able to tell from afar. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Aston Martins are rare, but an Opel is non-existant in the about exclusive! I always wondered how much money it would cost to convert a Peugeot or Renault to comply with US regulations. Even if it were possible, finding a good mechanic to do repairs would be quite tricky (and expensive). But this Saturn would be quite affordable. Click through for some more shots:

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: Toyota Prius - the king of hybrids

I recently had a chance to drive the Toyota Prius through Zipcar, and it's not all bad. Here is the review, which I wrote as a guest contributor for RawAutos, an interesting car blog you should also check out. The blog owner, Josh Lewis, is a great writer, has fresh opinions, and is an all-around good guy. So do yourself a favor and check out his blog as well!

Now on with the review...

The Toyota Prius is the world’s best-selling hybrid and one of Toyota’s best selling cars…and all for good reason. It offers awesome fuel economy, a high-quality interior, and tons of trunk space. Having recently driven and reviewed the comparatively downmarket Honda Insight through Zipcar on my blog a few weeks ago, I can conclude that while the Insight is good yet slightly underrated, the Prius is rather deservedly highly rated. While I didn’t intend to make this article a battle royale between Honda and Toyota’s similar-looking 5-door hybrids, one can’t help but draw comparisons. Bottom line – the Prius is more pricey, but the driving experience is also more satisfying. Click through to see the rest of the review:

Performance: Today’s hybrids are inherently not fast cars, but their buyers are not expecting high performance, so it would not be fair of me to knock the Prius for its sluggish acceleration and annoying lawnmower-like engine whine. And for those who want to play devil’s advocate: the hybrid versions of high-end cars such as the Lexus GS/LS, Porsche Panamera, and Cadillac Escalade may be fast AND sound decent, but I would not consider these vehicles hybrids in the truest sense given their paltry improvement in fuel economy. Simply put, the Prius is slow; its power feels similar to compact cars such as the Corolla, Civic, and Sentra, despite offering midsize-like space. While the Prius feels no faster than the Insight, it somehow manages to corner better and drive livelier. Engine-shutoff is a smoother process in the Prius, as I experienced much less “jolting” than the Insight at stop lights. Regenerative braking in the Prius, as in all hybrid cars, takes getting used to as it is much more responsive than in regular cars.

Exterior Design: Despite having nerdy hybrid-like characteristics, I still think the Prius is a fresh, unique, respectable looking design. The overall exterior design, especially the side profile and rear end of the Prius, is marginally sleeker than the Insight. I also prefer the Prius’ design to just about every other Toyota model, especially the bland and ubiquitous Camry, Corolla, and Highlander. I must admit that the Toyota Prius’ front end is too blobby for my taste, and I prefer the more futuristic fascia of the Insight. The bump in the center of the Prius’ hood near the Toyota logo reminds me too much of the Yaris, and the headlights look like the nonsensical shape of the Nissan Z and Maxima’s headlights. The Prius’ LED taillights, blue halo effect around the Toyota logo, kinked D-pillar, and glass inserts between the A-pillar and side mirrors are thoughtfully designed features that make the Prius stand out. The Zipcar logos all over the trunk and right side made my Prius even more of a head-turner!

Interior Design: The interior is really where the Prius leapfrogs over the Insight, as its design is considerably more ergonomic and thoughtful. The Prius’ marketing strategy is quite paradoxical: buyers are generally eco-friendly, so the car couldn’t be too luxurious, but at the same time, the Prius needed enough creature comforts to appease the wealthy buyers and celebrities who, truthfully, are likely more attracted to the Toyota Prius for the mere appearance of eco-friendliness. I believe Toyota has struck this balance perfectly, which is why the Prius has been a hit, and the more basic Insight has faltered.

The Prius’ dashboard is pleasingly laid out; it almost feels like it is curled around the driver, waiting for his or her next command. I love the design of the center air vents – the chrome accent in the middle and the downwardly curled edge on the left side are tastefully executed. The center radio / air conditioning console is covered in an appealing ridged plastic that gives a convincing appearance of metal. Overall, the layout and materials used on the dash are considerably higher quality than the Insight. The thinness of the console reminds me of Volvo’s beautiful interiors, maximizing storage space behind the console. Its dashboard buttons are simple to operate (I was driving a fairly base model, but navigation is an available option). I usually don’t like cloth seats, but the fabric on the Prius’ seats was very soft and tastefully crafted. The Prius’ high-quality dashboard plastics are imprinted by a mix of soothing wave-like patterns – a small touch that actually put a smile on my face.
There are a number of features that make driving the Toyota Prius an “experience” and reminded me that I was driving a hybrid-electric car. The start button is a much-welcomed feature that is not found on many cars at this price point. The shifter is an interesting Star Trek-like joystick that glides to Drive and Reverse with a flick of the wrist, and it is much more pleasing to operate than a standard shifter. When you’re ready to park, you press a button rather than shifting the joystick. There are also buttons to change the source of power from pure electric to a fuel sipping “Eco” mode to a more gas-hungry “Pwr” mode for those late for work. However, I think these buttons are somewhat unnecessary given how efficient the car is in its normal setting. The Prius’ steering wheel is intelligently designed with convenient buttons to operate the radio. When you press a button, an identical image of the button simultaneously appears next to the speedometer – an upmarket feature that reminds me of the heads-up displays found in Cadillacs and BMWs.

A couple gripes with the interior: while the little image of the Prius showing the car’s source of power is nifty – and I could see it being important to fuel-conscious buyers – I do prefer the Insight’s blue / green color-coding that indicates when the driver is using gas vs. electric power. Toyota should implement this feature in the next redesign. I also despise the central location of the speedometer. I never like centrally mounted speedos. Ever. It is extremely distracting to continually look away from the road to see how fast I’m going. I didn’t like this design concept on the Saturn Ion, Mini Cooper, or Scions, and I don’t like it here. Lastly, the color of the interior is an overwhelming gray color – the two-tone option looks better, but regardless, the interior could be spruced up with some wood accents carefully placed on the dash and door handle areas.

While the design of the Toyota Prius is quite unique and screams “HYBRID” to the world, it is also very practical. There is plenty of room for large cargo, especially when the seats are folded down. The first-gen Prius was a relatively dorky-looking compact sedan with a traditional amount of cargo space. The latest body style solves this issue and is much more relevant for families and small business owners who frequently haul large objects.

Conclusion: The Prius is a mass-produced masterpiece, and in the world of hybrids, it is king. However, if I was in the market for a mid-$20k 5-door, I would never buy a Toyota Prius or a Honda Insight… I would buy the Audi A3 because I (and likely you, a car blog reader) am not the Prius’ target buyer. The Prius and Insight are devoid of performance, solely existing to be ecologically and economically responsible and, as a result, take the fun out of driving. In fact, while I was taking pictures of the Toyota Prius, I was quite distracted by a beautiful Porsche 911 Targa that drove by. When a car company produces a reasonably priced, quick, fun-to-drive, practical hybrid with Prius-like mpg stats, only then I’ll be interested. And a 20 mpg Escalade Hybrid doesn’t count. But for non-car enthusiasts, the Prius (and for those on a tighter budget, the Insight) is the perfect choice – fuel economy, an eco-friendly image, cargo space, and all the standard creature comforts.

[Photo credit: Toyota]

Monday, October 3, 2011

Driving Our LEAF to See New Electric Cars at the 2011 Alt Car Expo in Santa Monica

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Alt Car Expo is an exciting annual event held in Santa Monica, California that features exhibits and driving opportunities for cars with alternative fuels and drive systems.  Southern California is a hotbed of EV interest, and it is safe to say that Alt Car is the best place to see and drive the newest electric and alternative fueled vehicles.  It was at the Alt Car last October that I first saw and drove the LEAF and saw it in its final production form and paint colors.  I went on September 30 this year to see and drive what is new and coming to the marketplace.

Before I  share my exciting day at Alt Car, I'll talk about my drive to the venue.  I live more than 50 miles south of Santa Monica.  The usual range of the LEAF at freeway speeds is about 70 miles. The LEAF will make it to Santa Monica easily, but a recharge of at least three hours at Level 2 (240 volts) will always be required in order to make the return trip.  I was able to rely on the kindness of a friend who lives in Santa Monica to charge up while I was at Alt Car.  This was the first time that I had taken the LEAF beyond its round trip "point of no return", and it was an interesting experience. 

As my twelve fuel bars dropped to six, about 35 miles into the trip, near LA International Airport, the realization set in that I would definitely need to get my recharge before I was going to get home that day.  Since I had a definite plan for recharging at a friend's house, there was no anxiety.  But if I had needed to rely on finding an available space at a public charger, there would certainly have been some anxiety from not knowing whether all of the public charging spaces would be taken by other EVs, or, perish the thought, by a gasoline car.  As more EVs are joining the public "fleet", charging stations at key destinations are going to be more and more likely to be in use when we arrive, needing to charge.

One of the reasons that I was looking forward to driving the LEAF to Alt Car was to make use of my newly received HOV lane white stickers.  While, for fuel efficiency, I wanted to stay out of the HOV lane when traffic was flowing swiftly, because the LEAF burns much more power at 75 mph than at 60 mph, I jumped into the HOV when traffic started to jam nearing West LA.  My LEAF's GPS traffic display, powered by XM satellite radio, was really useful for anticipating the need to move toward the HOV lane, since I could see red warnings of traffic slowing miles ahead of the actual jam.  I'd estimate that the HOV stickers saved me 40 minutes or more of sitting in slow traffic on my round trip.

Exciting First Showings at Alt Car Expo
Nissan had its full functioning Drive Electric Tour operating at Alt Car and our friends at Nissan were very welcoming to us.  We stopped by to chat and pay our respects, but being veteran LEAF owners now, we spent most of our time learning about some of the new cars on the market.  I was excited to see and drive some new EVs at Alt Car, including first drives in the CODA sedan and the newly redesigned Mitsubishi i small sedan.  Both of these makers are expected to deliver their first cars here in the next few months.  I also wanted to see, and at least sit in, the new Fisker Karma and BMW Active E field test coupe.  And I was looking forward to opportunities to drive the Chevy Volt and some of the new hydrogen fuel cell cars, as well as some of Toyota's and Lexus' new designs, especially the Prius Plug In Hybrid.

CODA Sedan

After several delays, CODA seems to be on track to deliver their first cars in the next few months.  CODA is a small company, based here in California, that is constructing EVs in a novel way.  The body and chassis for their sedan are built in China, apparently based on a Mitsubishi design.  CODA is installing the electric motors, batteries and control electronics here in the US.  I rode in a prototype at last year's Alt Car.  On Friday, along with a friend from, Mike Walsh, I was able to drive a more recent prototype that was closer to production-ready.

The standout points for the CODA sedan, as compared to the field of currently available EVs, are the large 36 kWh battery pack and the 6.6 kW capable on-board charger.  The larger battery pack should give the CODA  almost 150% of the range of the LEAF, around 110 miles reliably under most driving conditions, and as many as150 miles under ideal conditions.  And the larger charger (the LEAF's is currently only 3.3 kW) can add over 20 miles of range per hour of charging, compared with half of that distance for the LEAF.  And the CODA can fully charge from empty in as little as six hours at Level 2 (240 volts), compared to more than seven hours for the LEAF.

All of this technical superiority comes at a price, though.  It is no surprise that larger battery packs will quickly drive up the price of an EV.  In the case of the CODA, the list price of the base model is $45,795 including delivery charge and before government incentives, and rises to $47,585 with options like leather, upgraded wheels and special paint.  The CODA is eligible for the $7,500 federal tax credit and California's $2,500 rebate. [NOTE: When CODA officially announced pricing of the car, later this year, they reduced the base model pricing to $40,795 including destination charge and before rebates and options.]

As the CODA product specialists said they are aware, the exterior and interior design of the sedan are less than exciting.  The car's exterior design is straightforward and functional for a compact four door, five seat sedan, but compared to modern competitor's designs released over the last five years, it is quite plain.  Equipped with the optional leather seats and the standard large LCD display, the interior is comfortable and passably attractive, and the steering wheel has a nice leather grip.  Unlike the LEAF's completely digital displays, the main instruments in the CODA are analog gauges.  These include a state of charge meter and power use/regeneration gauge.  The interior is hindered, though, by the hard plastics on the dashboard.  We were told by the CODA people that the second generation car will be a fresh design, created to be an EV from the ground up.

On our short drive, I found the CODA sedan to come up to speed impressively after feeling rather slow on initial accelerator tip-in.  The product specialist said that CODA is aware of this and will be adjusting the software to produce livelier acceleration from a standstill.  Since the drive was a short one, just around a city block, there was no chance to feel the steering or handling ability.  Of course, like most EVs, the car is quiet and has good torque, especially after the car gets moving.  I prefer the driving dynamics of my LEAF, which is a somewhat lighter car with similar torque, and I also prefer the digital instruments and the overall more modern design of the LEAF's interior.  I also find the five door hatchback design of the LEAF to be more useful for a family of five with a small child, with accompanying strollers, etc.  While the additional range and faster charging of the CODA are attractive, I find the LEAF's value for money to be a much more impressive package.

Mitsubishi i

Mitsubishi has been building and selling its small iMiev sedan in Japan and in Europe for several years.  The iMiev is a small four door, four seat electric sedan based on a gasoline car sold in Japan.  For the 2012 introduction to the US market, Mitsubishi has expanded the width of the car about  four inches and the length about 10 inches (per Wikipedia).  The Mitsubishi i will be one of the least expensive highway capable EVs in the US, at a base price of about $30,700 including destination charge and before government incentives.  The car should be eligible for the federal $7,500 tax credit and the California $2,500 rebate.  Navigation and other options can add more than $2,000 to this price.

The i will be the one of the most efficient mass market EVs due to its small size and a curb weight of more than 800 pounds less than the LEAF's 3,400 pounds.  The Mitsubishi has attained an EPA equivalent mpg of 112 mpge, compared to 99 mpge for the LEAF and 119 mpge for the Tesla Roadster 2.5.  

The battery is 16 kWh in size compared with the 24 kWh in the LEAF, and the rear drive motor is 49 kW as compared with the LEAF's 80 kW front drive motor.   The EPA range for the Mitsubishi is 62 miles compared with 74 miles for the LEAF.  This makes sense given the smaller battery in the Mitsubishi and its more efficient drive train.

The Mitsubishi i is a small car, and this becomes quite evident when it is compared with the LEAF.  The car seats four as compared to five in the LEAF, and the LEAF is more than two feet longer.  Interior space for the driver and front passenger feels tighter than that in the more spacious LEAF, but it is certainly a comfortable driving environment.   But it is in the instrument panel and its design that the LEAF really differentiates itself from the Mitsubishi.  While the LEAF impresses the driver with multiple digital instruments showing driving economy and efficiency, standard navigation with driving range estimate and icons for available charge stations, the standard Mitsubishi i has a few basic gauges, including a small fuel gauge.  GPS navigation is standard on the LEAF, but optional on the Mitsubishi.

On our short test drive, I found the Mitsubishi to be a bit slow off the line, but more responsive with a rolling start. It handled reasonably well on its tiny tires, but on our short, around the block drive, there wasn't any opportunity to really test the car's handling or steering feel.  I did play with the transmission's three modes, Drive, Eco and Brake.  Brake mode provides a stronger regeneration setting during coasting and light braking and it allows driving using only the accelerator pedal for the most part.  Many EV enthusiasts enjoy this higher regeneration level and the regen built in to the LEAF is really quite mild.  I found the interior acceptably finished and I enjoyed the leather steering wheel on our test car, but I did find the instrumentation to be meager and less informative than the large digital instruments that are standard in the LEAF.

I see a place for the Mitsubishi i in the marketplace as a small, fun-handling and inexpensive entry level EV for short commutes, errands and city driving. As an overall package, and as a value proposition, however, I find the LEAF much more attractive for the average driver.

Chevrolet Volt

Much has been written about the Volt and most people who are interested in the car are already fairly familiar with its specifications.  The Volt is a plug-in hybrid with a 16 kWh battery, an electric driving range of 35 to 40 miles and a range extending gasoline engine/generator that provides fuel economy of about 37 mpg in gasoline mode.  The MSRP of the car ranges from $40,000 to just over $46,000, including destination charge and before incentives and credits.  The Volt is eligible for the $7,500 federal tax credit but not for the California rebate nor the HOV lane stickers.  Chevy says that future models may be eligible for these California benefits.

My drive in the Volt at this year's Alt Car, which was my fourth time driving the car, left me feeling more positive about the car and reinforced my earlier good impressions.  It feels well engineered, solid, quiet, sporty, well built and quick to accelerate, with solid braking and handling.  The interior, especially when equipped with leather trimmed seats, gives the impression of being made of good quality materials with effective and informative instruments and clever features.  Whenever I drive a Volt, I must admit to feeling a fairly strong urge to own one.  A great setup for clean and economical driving for a two car family would be one pure EV and one plug in hybrid, and the Volt, with its fairly large electric range, is a good candidate for the plug-in hybrid in this equation.  One improvement that I think GM should make is to add a control that allows the driver to decide when to activate electric drive. 
EDIT: I guess that "Mountain Mode" in the Volt can be used to switch into gasoline drive mode to save electrical power for later use.

While the seats in the Volt are more comfortable and more adjustable than those in the LEAF, the interior space is more cramped than that in the LEAF, especially in the rear, where it only seats two, compared to the three-across seating in the LEAF.  The 35 to 40 mile EV range of the Volt should allow many families to drive mostly in electric mode if they charge the car nightly.  The smaller battery allows full charging overnight on regular 110 volt power from any outlet without requiring the buyer to modify their homes' electrical systems.

Fisker Karma Plug-In Hybrid Sedan

(Photo credit: Autoblog)

Fisker has shown their gorgeous and impressive Karma sedan at auto shows for more than two years, now.  But the car hasn't been available to sit in, let alone to test drive by members of the public.  At Alt Car, Fisker at least had a nice white Karma available to sit in and touch, and the experience was  fabulous.  The Karma's exterior is long and low and this is one car that almost looks like it is speeding when standing still.  The interior is fittingly enticing, as well.  The low, reclining seats with leather coverings, of course, are very comfortable, and the interior has been designed from the ground up as a high-end cockpit for this range extended electric car.  I truly loved sitting in the car.  Visibility from the low-mounted seats out towards the car's corners was somewhat difficult, but that is a fairly common problem with many cars today.  The low seating position requires some bending and twisting to easily enter and exit from the car, something that should be kept in mind by potential buyers with mobility and flexibility issues.

Fisker should begin deliveries of the Karma later this year.  Prices begin at around $97,000 and go up from there when Fisker's interesting selection of interior options are added.  The Karma packs a 20 kWh battery to provide up to 50 miles of electric range, and adds a range extending gasoline engine/generator to provide additional miles of travel.  Unlike in the Chevy Volt, the gasoline engine only provides electric power and never actually drives the car.

BMW ActiveE Field Trial EV

BMW is rolling out the ActiveE as its second field trial of an EV, after their successful trial of the MiniE over the past two years. The car is available to only 700 drivers as a two year lease, no purchase option, at $499 per month with $2,250 down.  No government incentives will be available, since the program is a field trial, not a standard lease.  BMW had an ActiveE on display at Alt Car and we were able to see and sit in the prototype.  The ActiveE is actually a modified BMW 1 Series Coupe.  The batteries are located in the former engine compartment and drive shaft areas of the Coupe.  The ActiveE uses many of the components of the upcoming BMW i3 EV, with a rear-drive electric motor and 30 kWh battery pack, as well as a 6.6 kW on-board charger.  The drive system encroaches significantly into the trunk area of the ActiveE, leaving a fairly small luggage space in the trunk and a narrow pass-through to the folding rear seat backs.  The interior is standard BMW 1 Series, with manual seats to save weight.  From its specifications, the ActiveE should drive and handle well, but it is a fairly heavy car, some of which comes from the fact that it is a converted ICE car, so acceleration isn't likely to be impressive.

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid

Toyota is introducing a plug-in version to its growing family of popular hybrids.  But the electric range of this new Prius is only about 15 miles, and the car begins using its gas engine at over 60 mph, even if the batteries are not depleted.  At least Toyota has included controls that allow the driver to select when to use the electric mode, allowing the choice to save the electric mode for a time when it will be of most use.  As compared to the other mid-priced plug-in hybrid, the Volt, the Prius' gasoline mileage in hybrid mode should be close to the 50 mpg average of the current Prius.  So the Prius Plug-In will be a more economical long distance car than the Volt, but in day-to-day driving, the Volt will be the more economical car due to its longer electric driving range.

I drove the Prius Plug-In at Alt Car Expo and I must say that I wasn't impressed.  After driving a pure electric car for six months, I found the acceleration and handling of the Prius Plug-In to be slow, buzzy and imprecise.  That level of performance was too close to that of our current 2007 Prius and nothing like the responsive driving experience of my LEAF.  As I found in driving the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid doesn't need to be as boring as a Prius.  Especially with its short electrical driving range, I have no interest in getting a Prius Plug-In.

Lexus CT 200h sport hybrid

Lexus has introduced its lowest priced and smallest car, the CT 200h hybrid.  This is a smallish five door hatchback with the drive train from the current Prius and a sport tuned suspension system.  Of course, as a Lexus, the car has standard leather seats and a nicely designed, well equipped and comfortable interior.  The car handles well and feels sporty on the road, but the Prius-sourced drive train, with its buzzy, sluggish response, shouts through with a constant reminder that the car is missing a decent engine.  That would be too much of a regular reminder for me, I'm afraid, so no small Lexus hybrid for me.

Honda FCX Clarity Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Sedan

(Photo credit: Velocity Journal)

This lovely, well finished large sedan is available in a limited number of three-year leases (no purchases) in Southern California only, and only in a few regions with a sufficient number of hydrogen fueling stations.  The FCX Clarity is a demonstration project for hydrogen fuel cell transportation.  The car is available for lease at $600 per month, inclusive of maintenance costs and insurance costs (per the Honda specialist at Alt Car).

I have been aware of the FCX Clarity for a few years, and I occasionally see them being driven in my local area, but Alt Car was my first chance to drive one.  I was immediately impressed with the large amount of interior space in the car.  It is easily the largest and most comfortable interior in which I have had the pleasure of riding in a long time, although the rear only seats two because the car's design divides the rear seating area, making this a four seater car.  The interior styling is fresh and modern and there is lots of glass space, providing an airy, open feel.  The driving experience was equally impressive, with the car being as quiet and responsive as any good EV should be.

The Honda Clarity would be near the top of my list of cars if I had the need for a large and elegant car with a driving range of about 260 miles per tank, but which is limited to driving only within about 130 miles of a hydrogen fueling station in Southern California.

However, as a fuel, hydrogen suffers from being mostly available from the same fossil fuel sources as provide our current oil and natural gas.  Also, since these are really electric cars that carry their own fuel, we have to look at the efficiency of producing that electricity.  Since it takes electricity to produce the hydrogen from the feed stock fuel, such as water or natural gas, and then energy is needed to transport the compressed hydrogen to filling stations, and then that hydrogen is turned back into electricity by a very expensive fuel cell, there are efficiency losses all along the way.  In my view, it is more efficient to take electricity directly from the power plant or renewable source and charge the batteries of an EV than it is to produce hydrogen and then make electricity from it inside the car.  The only real benefits of the fuel cell design are that the driving range between fill-ups is longer than that of most battery EVs today, and that the time required for that fill-up is a short few minutes.

Information on the Honda FCX Clarity at:

Mercedes Benz F-Cell B-Class Hydrogen Fuel Cell EV

Like the Honda FCX Clarity, the Mercedes FCEV is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, which produces electricity to drive the car.  Also like the Honda, the Mercedes is available only for lease to a very limited number of drivers, and only in limited geographic regions of California that are close to hydrogen fueling stations.  The Mercedes is based on the B-Class, a smallish van-type body design.  Like most Mercedes cars, the FCEV is well appointed and feels well built.  It drives smoothly and fairly responsively.  With a 240 mile range, the car would be a usable and pleasant addition to a family's garage.  But it must be remembered that long trips are out of the question for this car, due to the limited hydrogen fueling infrastructure.  

See also my discussion of the relative benefits of hydrogen fuel cells for cars under the Honda Clarity section above.

In my next blog post:  Six Months Experience with Our Nissan LEAF