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Rise of the Plug-In Hybrids

Sierra looks at electric vehicles that go the extra mile

By Reed McManus

The Sierra Club's Go Electric campaign

Visit our Electric Vehicle Buyers' Guide to get information about EV incentives in your state and emissions comparisons of EVs, plug-in hybrids, and conventional gas-powered cars in your region. You'll also find information about September's National Plug In Day, organized by the Sierra Club, Plug In America, and the Electric Auto Association.

Hooray for American cars. I say that not as a knee-jerk red-white-and-blue jingoistic American consumer—in fact, only one of the five cars I've owned was made in the USA (an unbreakable 1969 Dodge Dart)—but because Detroit's own Chevrolet is setting the bar when it comes to plug-in hybrid vehicles. Chevy's Volt, now in its third year, remains the standard for cars that combine plug-in battery-electric power with a gas engine.

The idea that a car can run some miles on tailpipe-emission-free electric power (and be recharged at will) and then switch seamlessly to a gasoline engine to continue 400 or so miles hits home with environmentally conscious drivers who, like many Americans, were raised on the intoxicating idea that cars reflect the liberating effect of the open road. You can help reduce climate change-causing emissions, air pollution, and oil spills without forgoing long-distance trips.

I mulled over American know-how and marketing genius as I slipped along California's U.S. 101 in a "crystal red" four-door Volt with library-quiet power. My commute (which I normally do by bus) is 41 miles round-trip, almost exactly what the Volt's display suggested I could drive on battery power alone. The EPA says that the Volt can travel 38 miles on a fully charged battery, while Chevrolet suggests up to 50 miles. But the term "your mileage may vary" has never been truer than with electric vehicles. Outside temperature, how much air-conditioning and heat you use, the terrain, your driving style, and the age of the battery all affect how many miles that charge will last.

EV Chart
See chart at full size.

As it turns out, I made the trip to work and back on a single charge, but not without effort. Typically a lead-footed fast-lane driver, I kept the Volt's miles per hour just over the posted speed limit of 55 (electric cars are most efficient at under 50 mph), joining a conga line of hybrid Toyota Priuses in the freeway's slow lane. And I practiced braking more slowly and smoothly, which returns more regenerative power to the battery. The Volt has a nifty gauge—it looks like a carpenter's level on the vertical—that lets you know when you're accelerating or braking too hard. Keep its rotating ball centered and you maximize your environmental do-goodness (and minimize your gasoline costs). Slow and steady. Now I understand why Prius drivers drive the way they do. I got home, plugged in, and looked forward to another 41-mile all-electric challenge the next day.

EV Chart
See chart at full size.

The man behind the Volt is Bob Lutz, a top executive at General Motors from 2001 to 2010 who envied how Toyota had leapfrogged Detroit with its groundbreaking Prius hybrid, introduced to the United States in 2000. Watch Chris Paine's fine documentary Revenge of the Electric Car and you learn that Lutz, a.k.a. Mr. Horsepower, previously brought us the road-hogging Ford Explorer and Chrysler Viper. With the Volt, Lutz showed that he had seen the light. "This country has to get off oil," he told Newsweek in 2007. "The electrification of the automobile is inevitable."

Lutz is also a notorious global warming skeptic and was heading General Motors when, starting in 2003, it scooped up all its beloved leased EV1 electric cars and crushed them, as documented in Paine's earlier work, Who Killed the Electric Car? So while he may not be a green purist, Lutz knew how to sell cars to Americans, and he figured that too few of us were willing to abide the limited range of an entirely electric car like the Nissan Leaf, which goes about 75 miles per charge. Hence the Volt's backup gas engine and its combined electric and gas range of 380 miles.

"This country has to get off oil," GM's Bob Lutz told Newsweek in 2007. "The electrification of the automobile is inevitable."

Some 14 million cars and trucks were sold in America last year, but the electric car segment remains a sliver. In 2012, some 450,000 electrified cars were sold, and that number includes now-ubiquitous conventional hybrids like the original Prius, which uses its battery power and gas engine in concert (and cannot be recharged from an outlet). Plug-in car sales last year totaled about 50,000, with the Volt in the lead with 23,461 and the Leaf in second place with 9,819. While just a few all-electric cars have entered the market since Sierra last looked at plug-ins ("Plugged In," November/December 2012), the plug-in hybrid market is comparatively booming. In addition to the Volt, there's Ford's C-Max Energi crossover and its Fusion Energi sedan (each with an EPA-rated all-electric range of 21 miles); the Honda Accord Plug-in (13 miles); the Toyota Prius Plug-in (11 miles); and the sleek and pricey Fisker Karma (33 miles).

Supporters of pure-electric cars may wonder what all the fuss is about. Why get all eco-righteous over a car whose battery propels it for as little as 11 miles before surrendering to a gas engine, they say, when most all-electric vehicles travel 75 to 100 miles per charge? They have accepted their cars' relatively limited range, perhaps being blessed with short commutes to workplaces where employers offer charging stations or possessing enough patience to plan away-from-home recharging.


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