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Green Wheels: Which EV to buy? Tough call

Wide-range of fuel sippers to choose from.

Published December 7, 2012

Talk about choice.

Last week I wrote about how automakers are grappling with so many ways to power their cars.

One of them is the plug-in hybrid. But this one option offers several alternatives, and with the first half-dozen or so available or coming soon, we’re seeing how wide the range will be.

These cars have both electric motors and gasoline engines. The car travels a certain distance on battery power alone. When the battery gets too low, internal combustion comes to the rescue. As long as the driver fills the gas tank, there’s no danger of running out of juice as there is with a pure battery-electric vehicle.

In “regular” plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs, both the gasoline engine and electric motor at various times directly power the driving wheels. With extended range, or EREV, only the electric motor drives the wheels; the engine runs a generator to keep the electric system going.

The automakers come at this in different ways.

A key decision is how far the car will initially travel on battery power. That depends mainly on the size of battery installed. The bigger the battery — the more kilowatt-hours of energy it stores — the longer its all-electric range.

But with size come weight, cost, and decisions.

Bigger batteries are more expensive, but that can be partially offset by government incentives, usually based on battery size.

Weight cuts electric range. It also increases gasoline consumption when the engine is running. With fuel economy, it’s a key selling point and a potent argument in favour of keeping the battery small.

The result is a balancing act among battery-powered range, price, and fuel consumption. Each automaker has come up with its own formula, and claims its version has the right all-battery range for daily commutes and errands. And each produces different statistics to prove their point.

Governments try to assist by providing data such as annual fuel costs. But they’re averages. Consumers will need to analyze their own driving patterns and then pound a calculator: Are they better, for example, buying a Volt with its long range but thirst for gas or a similarly priced Honda Accord with its 20-kilometre range but much better fuel economy? Or should they spend less on a Prius Plug-in that goes just 17 kilometres on battery power but tops the current crop on gasoline fuel economy.

I’ve included the current choices. Since Canadian prices aren’t available for some vehicles, I’m using U.S. figures for comparisons.

It’s all evidence that as cars improve and get more varied, shopping for one is an increasing challenge.

Fuel sipper stats:

Toyota Prius Plug-in, Battery-only range, 17 kilometres; 4.5-kilowatt-hour battery pack; combined city/highway fuel consumption, 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres; U.S. price starts at $32,000.

Ford C-Max Energi: Range 34 kilometres; 7.6-kilowatt-hour battery; fuel consumption, 5.5; $33,745.

Chevrolet Volt EREV: Range 60 kilometres; 16.5 kilowatt-hour battery; fuel consumption, 6.4; $39,145.

Ford Fusion energy, available soon: Range 32 kilometres; 7.6-kilowatt-hour battery; fuel consumption (estimate), 5.5; $39,495.

Honda Accord PHEV, coming next year: Range 21 kilometres; 6.7-kilowatt-hour battery; fuel consumption, 5; $40,570.

Mitsubishi Outlander all-wheel-drive PHEV coming next year: Range 40 kilometres; 12-kilowatt-hour battery; price not available.

BMW i3, available in Canada in 2014, is being promoted as a purely electric urban car with a roughly 20-kilowatt-hour battery pack and 160-kilometre range. (More next week.) But with a small, optional “range extending” gasoline engine it will travel up to 320 kilometres non-stop. While not intended for road trips, it could handle drives around southern Ontario and manage the occasional longer jaunt. Pricing isn’t yet available.

While the Fisker Karma and BMW’s coming i8 also fit this category, they’re supercars that showcase the technology’s potential but will attract only a handful of well-heeled buyers.

wheels@thestar.ca

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