Assessing the ‘Electrified’ Alternatives
A HYBRID VEHICLE comes primarily powered by a gasoline engine that’s augmented by an electric motor/generator and a self-charging battery pack. The engine automatically shuts down while decelerating and at idle in most situations to help maximize mileage. In a “full” hybrid like the 53/46-mpg (city/highway) Toyota Prius c, the electric motor is able to run the vehicle entirely on its own at lower speeds and boost the gas engine at other times. Unfortunately, there’s a price to pay for the added fuel efficiency. According to the research company Vincentric in Bingham Farms, Mich., an average hybrid vehicle costs over $5,000 more than its gasoline-only equivalent. Depending on the model, owners may not be able to recover the added costs through fuel savings over a typical ownership cycle.**“MILD HYBRIDS”** like the 25/36-mpg Chevrolet Malibu eAssist use a smaller motor to modestly enhance a gasoline engine. They command less of a price premium, though they don’t improve mileage as much as do full hybrids, with the stop-start function registering most of the gains.
A PLUG-IN HYBRID packs a larger battery and can run for longer periods – around 20 miles or less – solely on electric power before operating as a conventional hybrid, after which it needs to be recharged to run in all-electric mode. While fuel savings are greater, so are the costs. The Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, for example, is rated at the equivalent of 95 mpg when running solely on battery power, and 51/49 otherwise; for 2013 it’s priced at $7,800 more than a standard Prius (though buyers receive a one-time federal income tax credit of $2,500 to help offset the added cost). Those having only nominal commutes stand to benefit more in fuel savings with a plug-in hybrid than do those who travel longer distances.
ELECTRIC VEHICLES like the Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus Electric run solely on battery power. Having a finite range on a charge that typically run from 75-100 miles under ideal conditions – and often far less depending on the ambient temperature, vehicle speed and other factors – there’s always the potential for an unprepared motorist to become stranded with a depleted battery. Serving as the vehicular bridge between hybrid and EV technology, the compact Chevrolet Volt and new-for-2014 Cadillac ELR “extended range electric vehicles” add a small gasoline engine that runs a generator to power the car’s electric motor once the batteries are depleted. The Volt is able to run solely on electricity for around 38 miles on a charge, with its range beyond that limited only by the amount of gas in the tank.
On the down side, electric cars remain expensive, with the Focus Electric starting at $39,200 and the Chevrolet Volt at $39,145, though they’re subject to a one-time $7,500 federal income tax credit. On the plus side, sources estimate it costs about one-third to one-fourth the price to charge an EV than to travel the same distance on gasoline. For example, the Focus Electric is rated at the equivalent of 110/99 mpg if it were gasoline operated. What’s more, Ford estimates the electric version will save an owner at least $1,275 over the vehicle’s life, compared to a gasoline-powered Focus, by being able to avoid oil changes, cooling and transmission servicing and replacing the air filter, spark plugs and drive belts.
Still, it can be prohibitively pricey to replace a worn-out EV battery after 10 or more years of service. Depending on the model, a full charge using 220-volt current takes between four and eight hours and likely twice that on a standard 110-volt circuit. Some homeowners may have to rewire their garages and/or install a charging station to accommodate a plug-in vehicle. Though an EV generates no tailpipe emissions, the actual environmental impact of owning one depends on the local source of electricity. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, coal-fired power plants produce about twice the global warming emissions as natural gas facilities, while renewable sources like wind and solar power produce virtually no emissions at all. If the process of choosing which type of gas-saving vehicle is best for your needs and budget isn’t difficult enough consider that some of today’s conventionally powered models are now able to get impressive fuel economy – 40 mpg or more in some cases – without the added hassle or expense of the electrified technology.