Thursday, February 25, 2010

Should YOU get an Hybrid or Extended-Range Electric Car?

Although I'm very much for our weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, if for no other reason than to get us out of the situation of being at the mercy of some not-very-friendly countries -- think Venezuela, for instance -- I realize two important factors when we're talking about our cars: One, fossil fuels are going to be a major, perhaps the major, source of our total energy source for some decades to come; and, two, while technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, a great many people remain skeptical of hybrid and extended-range electric vehicles, and not without reason.

But first, definitions are in order. A hybrid vehicle uses both  its electric motor and gasoline engine at the same time -- that is, the gasoline engine is connected to the power train so that it works in tandem with the electric motor. In other words, gasoline is being consumed all the time you're driving, but at reduced rates per mile. On the other hand, an extended-range electric vehicle works differently; the gasoline engine isn't connected to the power train -- its only job is to keep the battery charged.

So, if you drive, say, a Prius, which is a hybrid car,, you are going to be burning gasoline even if you just drive a mile or two. But if you drive a Volt (once they go on the market, that is), for up to the first 40 miles you won't be burning any gasoline at all.

At first glance, anyone who drives, say, an average of 30 miles per day may think, "Heck! All else being equal, I'll go with a Volt!" And indeed, there is something to recommend that: no expense for gasoline, and a boost for clean air.

But no gasoline expense and cleaner air aren't all there is to the story. You have to recharge a Volt -- well, I guess you could let the battery run down and just buy gasoline, since the expected fuel tank, according to the latest I can find from GM, will have a capacity somewhere in the 6-10-gallon range, and even at, say, 25 mpg, that'll get you a ways. In contrast, a Prius drives like a "real" car -- you never have to recharge it, because the gasoline engine is keeping it recharged the whole time while helping with the driving. That's a big plus, and a big reason the Prius is so popular. People do worry about being able to recharge an ER EV (extended-range electric vehicle).

If you're still eager for a Volt on the basis of savings on gasoline expenses, you better hold up and think a moment. Even if your driving habits are such that you indeed never or only very rarely drive more than 30 miles per day, how much are you going to save? If your current car gets 30 mpg, you'll save, at most, 7 gallons per week -- and that's only if you drive that much every single day of the week.

I decided to look at that number, and do some math. I just now checked online, and in the area in Texas from which I come, the median price for gasoline in the last 24 hours is around $2.60. Okay, so in a week I save $18.20, or $946.40 per year. I just checked, and the average American car buyer who buys a new car keeps it three to four years. Let's split the difference at 3.5 years. Okay, 3.5 X 946.40 = $3,312.40 saved. Let's round that down to an even $3,000, just to build in a margin of error.

Right now, there are some nice tax breaks available. If I remember correctly, you can get a $7,500 break from just the federal government alone for either kind of car. (Don't take my word for that if you decide to do some serious shopping -- check it out; a rebate I may remember correctly may have been reduced or even eliminated.) Various states give various breaks as well. But let's say you live in a stingy state that *doesn't* give *any* break.

Okay, that leaves you your $3,000 in fuel savings, in the case of the Volt, plus the $7,500 tax break from the our friends at the IRS. (You know it must since a tax collector into spasms of grief when Congress and the President gives us breaks like these!) That's a cool $10,500, which is (sort of like) extra money in your pocket when you head to the dealership. If you're a person who can reasonably afford no more than a $30,000 car, that's a lot of extra buying power. I'm assuming that a $40,000 car is almost certain to be rather nicer than a $30,000 one. Put another way, you get a $40,000 for 3.5 years instead of that relative clunker you could really afford.

BUT -- the eternal "but" -- what about after the fed break ends? Then you'll have to fork over $36,500 for a $40,000 car. And you'll have to recharge it as long as 3-4 hours -- on a 220-240 volt outlet -- or as long as 6-8 hours on a 110 outlet every time you drive it, depending, of course, on how far you drive it.

That's a pain in the a -- I mean neck. A Prius, on the other hand, is ready to rock-and-roll all the time, every time, unless you were a dodo and ran the tank dry, in which case I have no sympathy anyway, Dunce! ;-)  Just hope your battery has enough charge to let you limp to the nearest gas station to gas up. And don't forget next time, okay?

Now, what about a Prius, in terms of fuel capacity and consumption? I think the 2010 model holds just under 12 gallons. Let's just call it 12 gallons. It boasts a range of "more than 600 miles," which isn't very specific, so I'll assume a range of just 600 miles, since manufacturers lie through their teeth all the time. (Ditto GM, no doubt, not just Toyota -- and PLEASE don't bring up Toyota's current recall nightmare; I imagine they'll get that sorted, eventually, and make darned sure they don't get stuck like that again!) That's 50 mpg.

Okay, that means for a 30-mile commute you'll use just 6/10th's of a gallon compared to the 1 gallon you would use in an ordinary car that gets 30 mpg. So, you're saving 4/10th's of a gallon per day, or 146 gallons per year, which I am promptly rounding up to 150 gallons a year. At that same median price of $2.60 per gallon, that means you save $379.60 annually (if you drive every day of the week, every week of the year), which I'm also rounding to $380. Compared to the Volt owner, who saves $946.40-but-I'm-rounding-it-to-$950, You Pay, in a sense, a "convenience fee" of $570 not to have to recharge your car. A little under $1.60 per day.

So, which -- if either -- sort of car should you buy?

Well, that depends. If you're a typical family person in a family in which both the husband and wife work and drive 30 miles daily, including on weekends, but you're home every night and have a garage or carport in which you can recharge your vehicle, you may want to opt for the Volt. Night is when electricity rates are their cheapest, you're not going anywhere anyway, bar an emergency. However, if your driving habits vary, or if your a night worker and have to recharge during peak-rate daytime hours, maybe the Prius is better for you.

What about the potential car buyer who would be perfectly happy with a regular car that costs about the same as either a Volt or a Prius? I guess the next consideration would be how the buyer feels about cleaner air and the like -- and I don't mean climate change, global warming, whatever you want to call it. One can wish for cleaner air without believing any of the climate change stuff. If that's important to you (as it certainly is if you are a believer that people are pushing the climate over the edge), then you may want to give these cars some consideration, or cars like them.

What about people with greatly different needs -- like me, were I to move back to Texas (or anywhere in North America, for that matter)? I'm single, and there won't be any babies in this old boy's future. I suppose I might acquire a significant other somewhere along the way, in theory anyway; depends on how stiff I get -- "Do I really need a Sweetie around to go get me a beer?" Crucial considerations like that, you know.
But back to the point.

I'd probably take a look at some cars in the SmartForTwo class, not all of which are two-seaters, as it is. I checked a SmartForTwo, and it's near-unbeatable on price: I put together a basic coupe plus a few extras, most importantly an air-conditioner. On the company's website, the price came back as $13,530. There are quite a few choices in this class, though their prices can range above $20,000.

A final note: ER EV's aren't for everyone for everyone. Someone who otherwise is the ideal candidate suddenly remembers, "Hey, I live on the 78th floor of an apartment tower overlooking Central Park West! Where can I plug the damned thing in???" Oops. As the tuna ad says (or used to say in my day, anyway), "Sorry, Charlie." Or Charlotte. Or whatever.

I personally expect we'll see technology catch up sooner than we think, though building up infrastructure is going to take time since there are tens of millions of people across the country who plain don't have ready access to recharge EV's. And not everyone trusts even a Prius, though that's changing in its favor.

And if fuel prices soar again and stay high, unlike when they went to over $4.00 per gallon in 2008 but now are down to well under $3.00 per gallon, anywhere in the country, my bet is that Americans' driving habits really will change, even after the economy recovers and is purring along nicely.

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