What electric car would I buy? – EV test drives at PlugIn 2014

The PlugIn2014 Conference has come to San Jose, and I managed to snag a press pass, so expect to see a few reports over the next couple days about conference sessions.   The activity today was getting to do test drives with a few electric vehicles.  I got to drive several electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles today, so let’s do some capsule summaries of my thoughts.

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First – they’re all so much better than my car, a 1971 Karmann Ghia conversion.  While my car looks really cool, it is a movable historical marker.  No animations on the dashboard, no air bags, no regenerative braking, and on and on.  Basically all these cars were, well, about 43 years more refined than my car.

In other words, most of the vehicles I test drove today are very good, well refined, electric vehicles made by major manufacturers.  The state of electric vehicles is moving forward rapidly and the number of choices is growing every year.

It’s good to remember that it wasn’t that long ago – five years – that those of us who wanted to drive electric could only do so by building our own EV conversion.  Those of us who did so, we wanted electric vehicles really badly.

UPDATE July 2015 – In October 2014 I bought/leased a Kia Soul EV, and ended up selling the Karmann Ghia shown here.  I really really really like the Soul EV, and didn’t even know about it at the time of writing this post.

Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV:  This vehicle was delayed while Mitsubishi, and their battery supplier, were sorting out a few issues.  The PHEV is on sale in Japan, and a version for the American market will go on sale here in 2015.

It’s a large SUV, that happens to be a plug-in hybrid.  It has twin electric motors, one in the front driving the front axle, and another for the rear axle.  This makes it a four-wheel drive electric SUV, where the only other such vehicle is the Tesla Motors Model X.  I imagine the Model X will be quite a bit more refined than the Outlander, but then the Outlander will be a lot more affordable (ahem) than the Model X.

What I mean by “refined” is that while this car is nicely modern and well built, it’s not in the same league as the luxury cars from Tesla Motors.  That said, the driving experience was very good, and responsive.  I had some confusion in adjusting the seat position, but once the levers were explained that made sense.  The foward/reverse selector however was a bit on the odd side.

Unlike the gasoline powered Outlander, the PHEV model only supports two rows of seats.  Why?  It has something to do with the electric motor compartment in the rear.

ALTe PHEV Ford F-150:  I said above that “most of the vehicles” were far more refined than my Karmann Ghia.  The exception to that statement is this truck.  ALTe is a manufacturer of alternate drive trains which they’ve developed to fit into a variety of vehicles, including the Ford F-150 they had on display at the show.  Essentially they’re an electric vehicle conversion shop that’s focusing on bigger trucks.  The F-150 on display was not a fully refined vehicle they might provide to customers, but one of their test vehicles.

It’s a truck, drives like a truck, and is targeted at commercial deployment in fleets with many trucks.  In other words, they’re not focusing on the family car segment, but on more utilitarian needs.  For example, this truck is very powerful but that power is meant for hauling stuff, not for speed.

ALTe’s product line covers vehicles from the F-150 pickup, to the E-350/E-450 van, to larger trucks and buses.  You can find out more about them at altetechnologies.com

Cadillac ELR:  This is the supposedly luxury twin brother to the Chevy Volt.  I really don’t understand why this car exists.  It’s very expensive, and is not any kind of improvement over the Volt unless you like leather seats.  Maybe that’s why GM hasn’t been able to sell any ELR’s?

It drives well, the dashboard is informative, etc.  But I wasn’t all that impressed.

The back seat didn’t look very comfortable – and I think the roofline is pretty strange, especially in how it treats the rear seat area.

To me this car looks like a bad caricature of a comic book supercar, in a way that completely turns me off.  Normally I don’t car about the styling of a car, they’re all boxes on four wheels to me.  Occasionally a car will look pretty to me – such as my Karmann Ghia.  The ELR just looks horrible.

Chevy Spark EV:  At the other end of the GM elecrtrified car spectrum is the Spark EV.  This compliance car (built in tiny quantities and sold only in California) is a straight conversion of the Chevy Spark to electric drive.  That makes it a very small car – it’s basically a two seater, with back seats which for my purposes would be treated more as a cargo area than for passengers.  The rear seat looked more comfortable than did the ones on the ELR.

The Spark EV has 400 ft-lb’s of torque, and yes indeed it accelerated very well.  Unfortunately the test drive route was in downtown San Jose city traffic and didn’t give much opportunity to really let ‘er rip.

The control system is as it is for the gas powered Spark, with everything is adapted to control the EV system.  For example if you want a stiffer regenerative braking setup, set the gear selector to “L”.  That’s unlike other EV’s where there’s a “Mode” button (or two) to adjust regen.

BMW i3:  BMW had two i3’s on site, and there was still an actual line of people waiting to give it a go.  By comparison all the other cars had no line.  In other words, the i3 was generating a lot of interest and plenty of grins as people got out of the car after their test drive.

From the outside the i3 looks very small, but looks can be deceiving.  I’ve both driven this car, and been in the back seat, and both are comfortable and roomy.  What BMW did is create as much interior space as possible, a feat made possible by the flexibility of electric drive trains.  Because all that stuff is in the floorboards, BMW’s engineers didn’t have to waste space in the passenger area for an engine compartment.

Acceleration is great (0-60 in 7 secs) and the regenerative braking can be adjusted to be stiff enough that you drive with one pedal and you can even stop the car using just regen.  Handling is excellent, as you’d expect from a BMW.

What would I get?  I’m actually pondering selling my Karmann Ghia and getting a modern electric car.  In my mind during these test drives was, which of these would I get?

The BMW i3 is an interesting choice, but beyond the price range I can afford.

Until I drove it, the Spark EV was attractive because it has fast charge capability, good performance, and is very affordable.  Now I’m not so sure.  I want to see what they deliver for the 2015 model first.  I might be happy with it in the same way I was happy with the 1999 Chevy Tracker I owned for over 10 years.  That car was fun, and no bigger than I needed.  I’m sure the Spark EV would be lots of fun, and is obviously no bigger than I need.

The Outlander PHEV is interesting but is probably going to be pricier than I can afford, and in any case is much larger than I need.  But it’ll fit the bill for many people with big needs.

The Cadillac ELR was, as I said, very underwhelming and I really don’t understand what in consternation GM had in mind with this thing.

There was a Nissan Leaf in the test drive area, but I didn’t bother taking a drive with it since I’ve driven several Leaf’s in the past.  I’m strongly leaning towards the Leaf because it’s got the combination of size, utility and price that fits my needs and budget.  The 2015 model is supposed to have an improved battery pack and a few tweaks and improvements over the 2014 model.   I might instead opt for a used 2013 to save a few bucks.

The overriding concern in my mind is that the car I buy has to have fast charging.  At the moment California’s EV infrastructure favors the CHAdeMO fast charging system, and therefore the Leaf is the default choice.  But this may change now that CCS compatible cars are coming on the market.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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