Jim Kenzie's electric-car roundup
From Volt and Leaf to Focus or Fisker, our chief reviewer weighs the pros and cons of all current options for battery-powered transport.
We’ll start with the two cars that Wheels has been testing over the past few months for its Project Green blog.
Chevrolet Volt: If range anxiety is the main issue for battery-powered cars, Volt remedies that with an on-board gasoline engine that recharges the battery.
The car drives well and, mostly, normally.
Brake feel is a bit grabby, due to the brake regeneration function, which slows the car electrically. If you select the Low range, it feels quite unnatural, as if you’ve left the parking brake on.
Handling is interesting. It feels like there’s a very good suspension lurking under there, but the electronic steering has an artificial feel, and the tires have no grip at all.
The no-button centre console, where you just touch a label to activate a function such as climate control, is far too sensitive.
Visibility to the front corners is poor due to massive front windshield pillars. Visibility out the back is even worse.
There’s decent room for four people — the battery runs down the centre of the car, making it strictly a four-seater.
For most people, the Volt would be the most practical, or least worrisome, electric car because you always know you’re going to get home, sometime today.
Nissan Leaf: The Leaf is an interesting vehicle. Because it doesn’t have gasoline backup, it has to offer a much greater range than the Volt in order to have any practicality at all. I just wish it wouldn’t lie so blatantly about it.
When I picked the car up at the Star’s office at 1 Yonge St., it said it had 151 km of range. I drove home, a total of 85 km. By the time I got there, it was reading 7 km and the digits were flashing angrily.
One thing my neighbour-owner loves: this thing is fast. When you leave the controller in Drive (as opposed to ECO), you’re almost guaranteed to win the stoplight grand prix.
Visibility isn’t a whole lot better than out of the Volt. Again, fat windshield pillars. And the rear-seat headrests had to be removed or the car was dangerous to drive in town.
The car is dead-silent — it even has a noisemaker to warn pedestrians of its approach.
The ride and handling are OK and, again, there’s decent room for four.
Ford Focus BEV: Of all the mass-market electric cars, the Focus Battery Electric Vehicle is, by far, the nicest to drive. Probably because it starts with the very fine Focus platform, which is a delight.
It also appears that, unlike other electrics, Focus is trying to be as un-different as possible. Just a normal, average, fun-to-drive compact car. Get in, switch on, drive off.
I didn’t have as much time in the Focus as I would have liked. But based on my limited testing, if someone held a gun to my head and said I had to have an electric car, this would be my choice.
Mitsubishi i-MiEV: The i-MiEV is based on the i-Car, Mitsu’s entry in Japan’s sub-sub-compact class. This means the car feels like it was meant to sell for less money than a sub-compact, which it does in gasoline form. But as an electric, it costs more than $30,000.
It is a pleasant enough space to be in, and the car’s ride is more than acceptable.
The controller has three forward modes. D gives you all 66 horsepower and 145 lb.-ft. of torque. ECO cuts the power and increases the brake regeneration effect. B restores full power and also maximizes brake regen.
Mitsu is the only one of these cars that includes ports for all three types of recharging stations: a standard 110-volt household outlet (22 hours to full charge), a 220-volt outlet for the home stations most customers opt to install (seven hours), and the DC Quick Charge Level III system, which can bring the car to 80 per cent of full charge in about 30 minutes.
Fisker Karma: This four-seat luxury-sport sedan is, by far, the best-looking electric out there — one of the most striking cars you can buy, period.
This comes as no surprise, given that the company was founded by the guy who designed the BMW Z8 and Aston Martin DB9.
The interior is a mixture of good and not-so-good. Some of the switchgear looks below grade and, in both cars I tested, the centre console screen that controls everything (audio, SatNav and AirCon) failed.
Like Volt, Karma is a range-extended electric, with an on-board gasoline engine supplying the battery, which then drives the twin rear-drive motors.
One of the issues with all electric cars is weight. This, I believe, is a big reason why Karma would only run for about 40 km before the engine cut in.
You’re also driving around in a big car powered by a noisy, supercharged gasoline engine. Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose?
Tesla S: In a whole lot of ways, this is the most impressive engineering accomplishment in the electric car universe.
The largely aluminum body is handsome, if restrained. The interior is like no car you’ve ever seen, with a huge 17-inch full-colour touchscreen dominating the centre of the dashboard. This controls all sub-systems, such as audio, HVAC, SatNav, phone and various mechanical options such as suspension and steering response.
There’s a large trunk up front, another under the hatch lid in the rear, and the floor is entirely flat.
Somewhere buried under there is a lithium-ion battery, available in three capacities for varying range, and an electric motor available with a standard or high-performance drive inverter, which can sling the car from rest to 96 km/h in as little as 4.4 seconds.
It feels even faster than that. Because torque peaks at zero r.p.m., there are no pauses for a transmission to change ratios and it is virtually silent.
Environmental analysis: Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re doing anything for the environment by buying an electric car.
Environment Canada says that personal-use transportation accounts for about 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Cars simply aren’t a big part of the problem and the tiny number of electric cars that will be sold won’t affect this in any measurable way.
Economics: There are plenty of reasons to pay more for a car than it’s worth from a purely transportation perspective.
But paying more for added fuel economy? Sorry, that does not compute.
Compare the Chevrolet Volt to the Chevrolet Cruze: similar size, similar capacity, similar performance. Yes, the Volt is fancier in some ways. But it costs about twice as much as a comparable Cruze. And your break-even point would be more than 400,000 kilometres, even if you drive it almost exclusively on battery power, which most people could not.