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An Electric Car (at least part of the time…)

by Richard Elen on 26 Apr, 2015

in Science & Technology

An Electric Car (at least part of the time…)

There is a time when older vehicles start to become rather expensive to keep running, and with both our main vehicle, a 2001 Freelander, and our second car, a 2001 Focus that was a gift from friends, having had expensive or potentially expensive problems recently (and the Freelander has very nearly done the equivalent of going to the Moon), we thought it was time to consider something rather newer.

As we are trying to become rather greener in our lifestyles, an electric vehicle would be the ideal. But frankly, as it stands today, we can’t get the range from a ‘pure’ electric vehicle to do the sort of things we need to do (which includes a 200-mile round-trip once a week in my case, and more occasional long-distance trips, for example to Scotland). So the obvious thing to do was to look at hybrids. There is no way I could consider buying one new (and in fact I haven’t bought a new car since the 1970s, when someone wrote it off for me a few weeks after I bought it. I have this funny idea about not adding any new cars to the road…).

But what kind of hybrid? The obvious was one of the Toyota models. They’re built in the UK as far as I know, and they have a reputation for excellent build quality. But again, even a second-hand Prius was rather more than I had in mind pricewise. The next one down was a used Auris hybrid, and a very nice-looking car it is. A friend who knows the car said it behaved very well and was actually rather nippy.

However, although the Auris delivers good fuel efficiency – somewhere in the 75 mpg range I believe – it, like its bedfellows, is never a strictly “electric vehicle” – the wheels are driven by a combination of internal combustion engine (ICE) and electric motors. So you can never turn the ICE off. But while we needed a car that could do longer journeys (I would like ultimately to get us down to one car if at all possible), a lot of our driving is around Cambridgeshire and environs. That meant that another type of hybrid was actually more suited to our requirements: a PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle).

In a PHEV, the wheels are always driven by electric motors. This is a Good Thing as the drive train is much simpler (and thus, one hopes, more reliable) and much more efficient than all that engine-and-gearbox stuff. And you just put your foot down and go. The vehicle is powered by batteries, and you recharge them by plugging it in. But, and it’s an important and positive ‘but’, when the batteries are exhausted, an on-board ICE kicks in, driving a generator to continue powering the drive for as long as there is fuel available, essentially turning it into the equivalent of a diesel-electric locomotive – a ‘series-hybrid’ if you like (though by some definitions, a ‘hybrid’ has to have both systems able to drive the wheels). And because the ICE is only running a generator, it can always run at the most efficient speed, which saves an enormous amount of fuel to begin with. Overall, you get the benefits of an electric vehicle – no fossil fuels are used as long as you don’t exceed the electric-only range; and it’s quiet, powerful and extremely efficent – without the range anxiety. And when you are driving on the ICE, you get superb fuel efficiency.

There are not very many of these kinds of vehicles around in the UK. Discounting the new Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV version and the BMW i3, both of which are well outside our price range, you’re left with two: the Chevrolet Volt and the Vauxhall Ampera. Chevrolet and Vauxhall are, of course, both General Motors, and these are basically the same vehicle, the Volt being the original, released in MY 2011. The Ampera is the Europeanised version of the Volt. GM don’t use the term ‘hybrid’ for the vehicle: they prefer E-REV, or ‘Extended Range Electric Vehicle’.

Chevy is being wound down in the UK. And while Volts have been very successful in the US (and remain so – a new version comes out next year), neither variant did tremendously well in Europe, despite the Ampera winning a bunch of awards including Car of the Year in 2012, the year it came out here: there are about 6,000 on the road. It seems likely that this is because they were rather expensive when new – up in the fairly-large-BMW bracket while being a mid-sized reasonably luxurious hatchback. So I was expecting this to be out of range too… but not so! Although they have held their value pretty well, I was able to find a couple of 2012 Amperas – one not too far away – that we could actually afford. And following a test drive, we went for it. Previously owned by the dealership owner’s wife, it has been very well looked after; and it’s a very cool-looking Summit White.

I studied the forums and other information sources thoroughly before purchase, and as far as I could discover, it is one of the most reliable vehicles GM has ever produced: a known small risk of battery fire was fixed before the vehicles were even made for Europe; and while there is a known issue with a rather important bearing, only about 1-2% of vehicles have it fail and the problem and its solution are well-documented. According to a cleantech-oriented friend in the US, the Volt owners she knows are very pleased with their purchase.

amperaThe vehicle is extremely pleasant to drive, smooth and quiet, and even when the petrol engine finally kicks in, it’s still smooth and quiet and the performance (which includes its rather impressive acceleration) virtually unimpaired. The literature quotes the pure-electric range as “25–50 miles” – and that’s exactly what you get, depending on driving style and whether you have the heating on or not. On my first drive I got 48.8 miles out of the battery. The next day, leaving early on a cold morning, it went down to a mere 36 (tip: ‘pre-condition’ the driving compartment before leaving, while it’s still plugged in, which you can set it to do automatically).

The vehicle keeps a record of lifetime fuel efficiency. When I bought it, it was 110mpg (with 35,000 miles on the clock). I now have it up to 111. And indeed, as I expected, trips around Cambridgeshire can be made entirely on battery power – and if I can charge the car while the solar panels are outputting significantly more than we’re using, that operation is essentially free. Even on my weekly 200-mile round trip I managed over 90 mpg, thanks to being able to charge the car at my destination (where the Director of Marketing has a Tesla and is happy to share his charger) as well as at home. This knocks spots off a conventional Hybrid Synergy system. The car is learning what mileage I get from the batteries. When I first charged it, it estimated my battery range as 26 miles. It now thinks I’ll get 46. And that’s pretty much what I get.

chargerIt made sense to have a car charger fitted to the wall next to the driveway, rather than stick a cable out of the window, and there is a Government OLEV subsidy scheme that pays for a good chunk of the installation of a charger. I got mine (left) from ChargeMaster PLC in Luton, who were great to deal with – and having proposed a date, they actually came a couple of weeks early thanks to a cancellation. Charging the car from flat using the supplied EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment), which plugs into a standard domestic socket, takes about 6 hours at around 11A charging current. However if you have a charger installed, you can charge in about 4 hours at 16A.

220px-SAE_J1772_7058855567The Volt/Ampera has what is called a Type 1 (or J1772) connector (right), a fairly compact latching plug that goes into the left front of the vehicle. 220px-VDE-AR-E_2623-2-2-plugHowever most of the chargers you find in the wild in Europe are equipped with what are called Type 2, or Mennekes connectors (left). It made sense, therefore, to get a cable from one to the other so I can charge the vehicle at a public charging point at the destination (there is rather less point charging ‘on the road’ as the charging rate is only about 16 miles an hour, and that’s what the ICE is for!). Having this cable in the back of the car, it made sense to have a Type 2 socket on the home charger instead of the more usual tethered Type 1; and while I was at it, I future-proofed myself by getting a 30A charger in case friends with a Tesla call round or we upgrade down the line.

I would note when it comes to public charging sites, although there are quite a lot of them (more all the time, and many will take a Type 2 plug), they all belong to different networks that generally don’t have exchange agreements. As a result you may find you need a pack of RFID cards from the common networks and wave the right one over the charger to unlock it. In fact 85% of charging is carried out at home, and as I note, I won’t normally be plugging-in at motorway services, but I still want to be able to use a public charger at the end of a long journey, so having those cards (several of which are free) is probably worth doing.

(Main photo: General Motors/Vauxhall)

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