Saturday, October 12, 2013

Our (Unexpected) Decision to Go Electric

Though we had been interested in electric vehicles for years, a couple of things had prevented us from considering them as candidates for purchase. We have a couple of mid-80s vehicles bearing the name of automotive legend Carroll Shelby in our garage, and while they're not particularly valuable, we bought both of them new and haven't wanted to part with them to open up a parking space. We'd assumed that if we purchased a plug-in electric (PEV) or plug-in hybrid vehicle, we'd have to provide garage space for them while they charged.

So as our daily driver has increasingly been showing signs of age, the range of vehicles we considered did not include vehicles that were fueled with electricity from our home.

Friends of ours had been leasing a Nissan Leaf for a year. On a whim in September 2013, I searched craigslist for used Leafs. I found a few, and in the process of ruminating over the ramifications of owning an EV, I had a revelation: if we purchased a used EV, we wouldn't have to worry about maintaining its pristine condition: we could park it in our driveway. Further EV research eventually led to the realization that we were in a "sweet spot" for Federal and California state incentives ($7,500 and $2,500, respectively), as well as some incentives from our local power utility. The Federal incentive also benefited lessees (dealerships get the Federal incentive and pass along the savings by reducing the "lease amount" of the qualifying EV), and the state and even local utility company provided incentives to anyone leasing a plug-in EV or hybrid for at least 36 months.

I'd never seen the value of leasing a car, but the constantly-moving target of battery technology made an a 3-year lease - especially what looked increasingly like an inexpensive lease - an attractive solution for trying out the current state-of-the-art of EVs without being responsible for a frighteningly expensive battery pack. And we could park (and charge) it in our driveway.

Though we live within the massive sprawl of Los Angeles, much of our day-to-day driving is limited to our immediate neighborhood. The 20 to 30 mile ranges of most of the plug-in hybrid offerings could accommodate 80 to 90 per cent of our driving needs.

My wife's co-worker was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the time when American Honda Motor Company, trying to offset poor sales of their Honda Fit EV, dropped the lease from $389/month to $259 in May 2013. In addition to the greatly reduced lease rate, Honda provided a free Level 2 EVSE (a charging station worth about $1,000) and included collision insurance in the lease rate. We learned about this when she took delivery, and attempted to acquire one ourselves. But it was too late. When her point of contact, a fleet manager with the country's biggest Honda dealership, called me back to tell me there was no point in putting me on their waiting list, I knew it was a lost cause. That dealership had 50 to 60 names on the list and were getting one Fit EV per month, so he said we might get one in four or five years. When a car salesman doesn't try to sell you a car, you know there's no hope. And in four or five years, We all hope the current EV offerings will have improved somewhat.

By this time, I'd built up a spreadsheet comparing the current PEV (plug-in electric vehicle) and plug-in hybrid offerings. My being who I am, I welcome any narrowing of the range of choices in something like the vast consumer automobile market, and this got us down to less than a dozen possibilities.

During this time, we attended the 2013 gatherings of AltCar Expo and Plug in America's National Plug In Day. At these events, we drove as many of the current offerings as possible.

I researched. I compared. I did the math and realized that we drove our daily driver - a Dodge minivan - only about 5,000 miles the previous 12 months. Because we'd purchased a small motorhome, even short day trips often involve the RV, so annual mileage needs from our daily vehicle are very modest. This confirmed my assumption that the limited range of full EVs wouldn't have a problem accommodating our daily needs. Along the way, we realized that except for the pain of parking (we live on a street with competitive curb parking, which matters when you've filled your garage and driveway with vehicles), we'd wouldn't get rid of our minivan, so it would still serve - albeit a little less tautly as it once did - for large-capacity and longer-distance tasks.

I never intended this blog to be about our specific vehicle choice, so I won't go into detail about why we ended up with a 2013 Ford Focus Electric, or why we excluded all of the other candidates. A few highlights are in order, though:
  • Chevrolet Volt - If the Volt had not had a motion sickness-inducing gun-port windshield, the base of which is at nearly mid-shoulder height and four feet from the front seats (just put your motion sick-prone relative in the front seat of a Volt and ask them to look at a map while you go around the block); and the widest A-pillars (the vertical frame of the windshield) imaginable, which along with a 2"+ opaque border at the margins of the glass and the extreme rake of the windshield, conspire to obscure a full-sized vehicle from the driver across an intersection - we'd be driving one now. In retrospect, we're having more fun with a full electric. But we liked the "cake and eat it" idea of a serial hybrid, and the comely appearance of the Volt, and 2013 models were leasing and very attractive rates at the end of the 2013.
  • Chevrolet Spark EV - If the Spark wasn't so bargain-basement cheap in its execution and slightly homely, we might have given it more consideration. Its positive attributes included an inexpensive lease; 400 foot-pounds of torque (I'm a long-time automotive performance enthusiast); and being one of only a few (along with the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV) vehicles which supports DC Fast Charging - which can charge a fully depleted battery pack "to 80% in 30 minutes" - if you can find a DC Fast Charging station (there aren't many). 
  • Nissan Leaf - This was tempting . . . but not. It's got a HUGE community. Over 35,000 in the United States, and over 60,000 worldwide. It's a purpose-made EV, rather than a conversion of an existing internal-combustion (IC) car. But - and I'm embarrassed to say I care - it's kind of funny looking. On the one hand, it's not confused for any other kind of car. And while we're not the activistic sort of EV owners, we welcome recognition of doing something different. But maybe not that different. Pricing of outgoing-year models (including some somewhat confusing options about charging) was appealing. But the car just wasn't. 
  • Smart Electric - After several years of importing other Smart models to the U.S., a full EV finally arrives. And the lease is shockingly affordable - $135/month as of October 2013. I'd calculated that we'd save $110 to $120 in fuel costs over our minivan with any EV, even at 5K miles/year, so except for insurance, this would almost be FREE. However, the only cargo space in a Smart is a space between the back of the front (and only) seats, and the rear hatch. and you might be able to stack up six grocery bags back there. But I doubt it.
I recorded additional comments and photos from attending the AltCar Expo 2013 in Santa Monica, California on September 20, 2013 in this PDF file.

In the end, we were in a Ford dealership, and waffling about either a C-MAX Energi - a plug-in hybrid capable of 21 miles of EV-only operation but capable of 650+ miles of range when operated as a gasoline and plug-in hybrid; or the Focus Electric, with 80 miles of EV-only range. After tormenting ourselves (and the salesman) for days about it, I said to my wife, "If we buy the C-MAX Energi, it's just a car. We just drive it. If we buy the Focus Electric, we'll learn something." We still spent some time on the final decision, but the dealer clearly wanted to move the car, and we really liked it. The final negotiated lease payment included another $6,000+ in "lease cash" - a further discount by the dealership, and our lease payments are very reasonable.

Our 2013 Ford Focus Electric