A little over a year ago, Karen's faithful Subaru was on its last legs. She didn't want to give it up but the reality of the increasingly expensive repairs made us decide to buy a new car. With my recent 'retirement', I drove up the coast in search of surf most days, while Karen had to get to work and to client sites. Until Karen retires, we need two cars.
I had recently bought my long sought-after Audi AllRoad. Since the Audi provided everything we needed for long distance driving (we make regular trips to the Sierra to ski when there's snow or whitewater, and periodic trips to Oregon to visit Karen's daughter), we decided to consider electric vehicles for the second car. I did the research.
Clearly, the gold standard was the Tesla model S. It promised a range of 265 miles, an option for fast charging, a network of free charging stations, and it was a nice looking car for a sedan. Our friends who owned them loved them. But at $90,000 in the configuration we would have chosen, it was worth considering other options.
In fact, it made us much more realistic in assessing our driving needs. Did we really need a range of 265 miles? My daily rides up the coast were much shorter (though sometimes my surf driving took as long as driving 265 miles), and Karen's commute downtown and trips to clients in the Monterey Bay Area or occasionally over the hill, were nowhere near 265 miles.
And as we thought about our longer trips, considering the possibility of replacing the Audi, most were to the mountains where there were few charging stations, and at least for 5 months of the year, we often encountered snow. We weren't prepared to give up the all-wheel drive of the Audi. Tesla has since announced the all-wheel drive model D, but there are issues with taking that to the snow as well (more on that later).
And the final nails in the Tesla coffin were that it seemed to be a 'status' car and that I would likely be parking it on the side of Highway 1 when I went surfing. It just didn't fit the surfing image and did I really want to leave a $90,000 car parked in some of these places?
So if we ruled out the Telsa, what were our other choices? We quickly determined that the vast majority, at least 90% of our driving, required trips of less than 60 miles. And, it turned out that virtually every electric car had a range beyond that distance. So, I started looking. A couple of my friends had Nissan Leafs. They were satisfied with them but not excited. And at that time, the Leaf's range was surpassed by other, less expensive vehicles.
I worried about a number of vehicles like the Honda Fit and the Toyota Rav4 EV because it seemed like the manufacturers were just providing these vehicles to meet California zero emission requirements. I talked with two Rav 4 owners and learned that they were quite happy with the range (over 100 miles), but that they were unhappy with the charging time and the amount of energy required to drive short distances. The Rav4 was a standard Rav4 with a Tesla battery. There were rumors of issues between Toyota and Tesla too.
The Fit was only available on a lease basis which after watching Who Killed the Electric Car (and personally seeing the experience of one of its owners when GM demanded it back - and he refused), that seemed risky too.
The Focus came loaded with every option my Audi has and more - heated leather seats, GPS, multimedia, web access, back up camera, proximity sensors, everything. Its EPA range was 78 miles - certainly more than we normally drive. And with Federal and State rebates, I believe it was $22,000 out the door - we could have bought 4 of these for one Tesla. We decided to lease the car because our driving distances fit within the lease parameters and because we expected that battery technologies would change in the next three years, making the older models effectively obsolete.
Because of circumstances I won't go into, we ended up buying the car in Walnut Creek. I asked the dealer about the range, telling them that with the Audi, I get much better mileage than the EPA numbers. Would this translate into a greater range for the Focus? They assured me that it would (they were wrong). The GPS told us it was 79 miles to our house in Santa Cruz, so the Focus should make it, right?
Well, not really. We stopped in San Jose for dinner after finding a charging station (and figuring out how to use it without a Chargepoint card - another story) to give the car a bump.
Karen fell asleep on the ride over Highway 17, so she didn't get to share my first experience with RANGE ANXIETY. In Los Gatos, the Focus indicated that it had 60 miles. By time we got to the Summit a mere 7 miles further, it indicated 13 miles. It was more than that home and I started freaking out. Of course on the downhill the miles available started climbing and we had 50 miles by time we got to Scotts Valley. So ultimately it all worked out.
Our next surprise was on a very cold day. We had a fully charged car indicating 80 miles available. We turned on the heat and our available miles dropped to 35. It just hadn't occurred to us that with no internal combustion engine, the car produced no useable heat - it needed to use battery power to heat the car. So we heated the car briefly and turned off the heater. We now use it sparingly.
I have since spoken to my Telsa-owning friends and the Tesla has the same problem. If you use the heater in a Tesla, your range will suffer greatly - hence my doubts about taking an all-wheel drive Telsa model D skiing unless there were charging stations in the mountains.
We installed a 220 volt charging station at the house but interestingly, we rarely have to use it. For the last year, Santa Cruz has been offering free EV charging and has several charging stations around town. There's usually at least one available, though I have to admit that it can be frustrating when there's a plugin hybrid Prius plugged in (they only go 11 miles on battery and don't NEED to be charged to operate), or when an EV sits at the charging station fully charged for hours on end (Santa Cruz doesn't enforce the official 4-hour parking in these spots). But it's been rare that we haven't been able to get access to a free station. Santa Cruz says the free stations will be going away soon, but for now, I jokingly claim that I'm a sponsored surfer - Santa Cruz pays my transportation fees to my surf spots on the North Coast.
The last surprise the Focus gave us was after a 6-week trip to France. We returned and the car wouldn't start. In fact, we couldn't open the door with the remote. We had to pull out the manual emergency key. I was surprised that the battery was dead, so I called the dealer.
I learned that the Focus has two batteries. The main battery for running the car was still fully charged. Unfortunately the very small 12 volt battery had died. The dealer suggested I jump the car (which worked fine), and that for long idle periods, I disconnect the small battery to avoid battery drain from sensors, clock, etc., or that we have someone drive the car a few miles every couple weeks to recharge the small battery.
I'm a big fan of electric cars and the Focus in particular. There's virtually no maintenance - no oil to change, no tune ups. Having 100% of the torque available at all times means consistent acceleration at any speed. It feels like a gutsy little car.
Still, if we could only afford one car, it wouldn't be electric. Range is a factor.
I don't like the idea of the current crop of plugin hybrids - it seems like a waste and a complete stop-gap measure to claim zero emissions. On the other hand cars like the BMW I3 with range extender are very interesting. Like the Chevy Volt, it is an electric car - single speed transmission, full torque, low maintenance, but unlike a regular plugin hybrid, the small internal combustion engine is used to charge the battery, not to drive the car. This seems like a great idea until we have a larger network of charging stations, faster charging, and greater battery capacities.
And while I love Audis and think the e-tron technology is fascinating (it has dual engines like a hybrid, but can run both simultaneously yielding torque, acceleration and amazing horsepower), ultimately, I think it's a cop-out, like other plugin hybrids.
Our lease expires in 2017. We'll be looking at replacing the Focus then. We're hoping that with the rapid advanced in battery technology, it might well be possible to have an EV as our only vehicle.