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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)