A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

USA: Electric cars hit the road in Vermont

Richard Hoffman of East Montpelier drives his new Mitsubishi i-MiEV all-electric car on Wednesday, April 11, 2012. I-MiEV stands for Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle. Hoffman, an artist, says he bought the car as a way of putting his values into action. “We need to come off oil and go to new sources of energy for transportation,” he says / GLENN RUSSELL, Free Press

SOUTH BURLINGTON — The last time I road-tested an electric car, it was the size of a golf cart. Actually, it WAS a golf cart.

That was in 2009, when any Vermonter who wanted a more roadworthy battery-powered car had to spend $100,000 for a Tesla or build one himself.

Last week I took a spin in a Mitsubishi i-MiEV, a small but peppy plug-in electric car for sale at Burlington Auto Group on Shelburne Road.

After I parked the i-MiEV, I tried the all-electric Leaf plugged in outside the Freedom Nissan showroom, and then drove one of the two electric-gasoline Chevy Volts sitting amid shoals of gasoline-only sedans at Shearer Chevrolet.

The electric car business has accelerated from zero to competition in three years. This time, unlike the bumpy ride I had in the golf-cart-turned-commuter-car, I found all three vehicles fun to drive, comfortable to ride in and equipped with luxury options such as heated seats.

Electric cars haven’t arrived yet as mass-market vehicles. Their battery technology remains relatively new, and the market is tiny. Salespeople have all kinds of barriers to overcome, from sticker price to the lack of public recharging stations.

But as gasoline prices rise, as auto companies face federal mandates to improve fleet-wide mileage, and as states including Vermont press for greener transportation, electric cars might find their moment.

Vermont’s new energy plan, for example, calls for the state to obtain 90 percent of its total energy from renewable sources by 2050. In a rural place where nearly 50 percent of all energy usage is for transportation, that implies big changes in the fleet we drive.

“We have made comparatively little progress on improving our energy usage in transportation …” the plan acknowledges.

In late March, the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin signed on to “Project Get Ready,” a public-private partnership to prepare Vermont for electric vehicles.

“It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem,” Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said earlier this month. Drivers are hesitant to buy range-limited cars when charging stations are scarce, but private investors are reluctant to build charging stations when there are few electric vehicles on the road.

“We’ve got to develop on dual tracks,” Searles said. “We have to promote the availability of the cars, and make sure people aren’t discouraged by lack of fueling infrastructure.”

At least a few Vermont drivers already are eager to go electric.

“I’ve wanted to do this for at least 10 years,” Richard Hoffman of East Montpelier told me recently. Hoffman, a 65-year-old artist, bought the first Mitsubishi i-MiEV to reach Burlington Auto Group.

Buying the car, he said, was a personal action to back up his public policy beliefs, particularly his opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“I wanted to make a statement. To show people that there are options now, and we don’t have to keep drilling for oil,” he said.

The lithium-ion revolution

But the first question even environmentally conscious buyers are likely to have is: Would I like driving this car?

My test drives gave me my own answer: Absolutely.

We’ll get to the drawbacks and limits of electric cars in a minute, but perhaps the best compliment I can give all three electric cars is that driving them seemed … normal.

All three drew their electric power from lithium-ion batteries, hidden behind or beneath familiar, comfortable interiors. The connection for plugging the Leaf and the i-MiEV into a wall outlet is hidden behind what looks like a gas tank cover. (In a bow to tradition — or perhaps as an ironic comment? — the cars’ dashboard symbol for the state of the battery charge is gasoline pump with an electric plug attached.)

To recharge the battery, I could plug any of the cars into a standard 120-volt outlet. That would mean waiting more than 20 hours for the Leaf and the Mitsubishi car to recharge if their batteries were fully depleted. The Volt, with its smaller battery, would recharge in 10 to 12 hours.

More likely, I’d need to invest in a 240-volt home charging station (cost, about $2,000) that would cut the charge time by half or more. Recharging is relatively cheap — $1.50 to $3.50, depending on the cost of electricity, the car model and how much juice I needed.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, if I drive the an electric car 15,000 miles a year, and my electricity costs 12 cents a kilowatt-hour, the annual “fuel” cost would be $550 for an i-MiEV and $600 for a Leaf. Calculating that cost for a Volt is more complicated, because it would depend so heavily on whether I drove the car mostly in electric mode.

A peppy little car

Competition means consumer choice, and each of the three cars had differences to sell, too.

Of the three, the i-MiEV seemed most interested in announcing “I am an electric car” and in maximizing its electric range. I-MiEV stands for Mitsubishi Innovative Electric Vehicle (the company could use some help in the catchy-name department). It’s the smallest of the three and the least expensive, topping out at $35,000 before a federal tax credit, with a sporty hatchback shape and rear-wheel drive.

I liked the simple dashboard display, which provided essential information about the electric drive, speed and such. It looked serious, focused, as though only recently emerged from an engineer’s workshop.

When we went out for a test-drive, Paul Beaudry, I Car manager at Burlington Auto Group, found a parking lot and spun the i-MiEV in a circle so tight I finally understood what it means to turn on a dime.

That was fun, but when I took the wheel what interested me most was the car’s “brake” mode. As the car descended even a moderate hill, I moved the shift lever to “brake.” The car slowed noticeably, transferring energy from forward motion to battery regeneration.

That meant the car’s remaining range actually increased at times as we drove. The I-car had 23 miles of range in its charge when we left the dealership. (Beaudry said the car has a range of 85 miles in the right conditions). The remaining charge dropped quickly to 15 miles as we accelerated and climbed small hills on Shelburne Road. Then as we descended hills, and I shifted into braking mode, the range climbed back to 23 miles.

Of course, the laws of physics had not been repealed, and we had to re-climb those hills to return to the dealer’s lot, using up battery power. Nevertheless, I could see how my driving style would change; how, when it was safe, I’d sacrifice speed to boost the car’s battery range.

I-MiEV bottom line: EPA rating, 62-mile range, 112 miles-per-gallon-equivalent. Cost for a full charge, $2.50 to $3.50. Sticker price: $29,825 to $35,065 before a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Not a ‘tin can’

Nissan and Chevrolet made somewhat different choices in the appearance and feel of their electric cars. Both look much more like familiar gasoline-powered automobiles.

The Leaf, Nissan’s offering, had the snazziest interior, with suede-like seats. A heated steering wheel, front and rear heated seats and Bluetooth connectivity are part of the standard package.

“You don’t feel like you are sitting in a tin can,” salesman Tim Sichel said.

On the dashboard, a flashing array of Internet-connected digital displays is capable, among other information, of directing me to the nearest charging station.

Freedom Nissan has had its Leaf for only a month and hasn’t sold one yet, Sichel said. Potential customers are invited to drive the car, then order one customized with the options they choose.

Like Beaudry, Sichel said the car’s target market is customers “who want to be on the cutting edge of technology” and who are looking for a second family car for commuting and driving around town.

“I’d say 70 to 75 percent of the people who come in looking are driving a Prius,” Sichel said. I glanced out the door, where my own Prius was parked. Got me.

Perhaps because I drive a hybrid, I found I had no learning curve in driving the Leaf. The car was quiet and responsive. I had only to fight the distraction of all the information on the dashboard. The rate at which the battery depleted dropped quickly when I coasted down hills; the battery recharged as I braked, though the Leaf does not have a separate braking mode like the Mitsubishi car.

Nissan Leaf bottom line: EPA rating, 73 mile range, 99 mpg-equivalent. Cost for a full charge: About $3.50. Sticker price: $35,200 to $38,270 before the federal tax credit.

Losing ‘range anxiety’

With both the i-MiEV and the Leaf, I felt twinges of range anxiety even before I drove out of the parking lot. Range anxiety is the fear that I’d fully deplete the battery and end up marooned on the roadside. It’s one of the big limitations of all-electric cars.

No such worry in the Chevy Volt. The Volt’s battery has a shorter range than the iMiEV or Leaf — about 35 miles — but when the battery’s done, a gasoline engine feeds power to the electric motor to get you where you’re going.

Salesman Cory Loudon and I took the car out for a whirl using only the car’s electric power. In that mode, it drove much like the Leaf: quiet, responsive and comfortable.

Again, I found the 100 percent digital display a bit of a distraction, but Loudon said it is part of the car’s appeal to customers focused on the Volt.

“I sold one to a career IBMer, a guy in his 30s who works around technology all day,” Loudon said. “It’s those tech-savvy, environmentally savvy people who are interested.”

The Volt has battled bad publicity, including political attacks by conservative commentators, crash-test questions (now resolved) and a hiatus in manufacturing when supply outran demand. But things might be looking up: The car had its best month so far in March, when 2,300 were sold in the United States.

Chevy Volt bottom line: EPA rating: 35-mile electric-only range, total gasoline-electric range of 380 miles; 93 mpg-equivalent in electric mode, 36 mpg for gasoline engine. Cost for a full charge: about $1.50. Sticker price: $37,579 to $46,265.

A question of price

An unlikely political couple — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and his 2010 Republican rival-turned-car-salesman Paul Beaudry — drove together in an i-MiEV to a morning news conference earlier this month outside City Market.

Beaudry provided a running commentary on the car’s finer points as Welch drove. The congressman praised the little car and demonstrated how well the brakes work when he had to slam on them to avoid an errant pickup truck in the grocery parking lot.

Beaudry ran as a small-government, tea-party-supporting conservative, but this day he smiled supportively as Welch made a pitch for government investment in the transition to electrified transportation.

“I see the free market taking over some day, but government needs to give us a kick-start,” Beaudry said later.

Welch called for preserving the $7,500 tax credit for electric car purchases, one way to address a main complaint about electric cars: Their initial purchase price is too high.

A recent study commissioned by the New York Times found that — despite the much cheaper cost of fuel — owners of plug-in electric cars would have to own the cars for eight years or more before they saved money compared with a conventional gasoline car.


3 comments to USA: Electric cars hit the road in Vermont

Leave a Reply