Archive for the ‘Hybrids, Electrics and other “Green” Technology’ Category


Don’t buy the Fiat 500e. Actually, the exact quote from Fiat Chrysler’s CEO, Sergio Marchionne was: “If you are considering buying a 500e, I hope you don’t buy it, because every time I sell one it costs me $14,000.”

The unique badge for the Fiat Chrysler's first electric car, the Fiat 500e.

The unique badge for Fiat Chrysler’s first electric car, the Fiat 500e.

2015 Fiat 500e in Bianco (white)

2015 Fiat 500e in Bianco Perla (white pearl tri-coat)

The Fiat 500e is the very definition of a “compliance car.”  It was engineered and built solely to placate California’s Zero Emission Vehicle requirements.  While Fiat may lose money on every car, the diminutive 500e buys corporate giant Fiat Chrysler Automobiles the necessary regulatory “green light” from the California Air Resources Board to continue selling cars and (very profitable) Jeeps and Ram Trucks in the Golden State.  Until this summer it was only available in California; but now the 500e is available in Oregon.  Other states that adopt California’s emissions rules may follow.

The Fiat 500e is a happy-go-lucky doe-eyed adorable miniature pug dog of a car.  It romps through traffic, turns circles around lethargic Accords and parks it in just about any space. It’s a happy spirit, even if it has a short extension cord.

2015 Fiat 500e in Electric Orange Tri-Coat Pearl

2015 Fiat 500e in Electric Orange Tri-Coat Pearl

Look at that cute face!!

Look at that cute face!!

Car & Driver clocks its zero to 60 time at a respectable 8.7 seconds. That’s pretty good for this little car weighing nearly 3,000 pounds — 600 of which is the battery pack under the floor. And while the weight of batteries is always a range-sapping penalty for an electric car, its placement can actually make a car this small feel more grounded and less prone to being blown off the road by a sudden gust of wind.

The lower center of gravity and instant torque only found with electric drive make this Fiat 500 variant the best handling of the bunch, including the feisty 500 Abarth.  I really loved the way it drove.  It’s the driving equivalent of an ultra-fast point-and-shoot digital camera. Twist  On. Point in any direction. Press the go-pedal and you’re there! Get outstanding results without being a pro!

Visibility is very good as you sit upright with a generous amount of windshield and side glass for such a small car.  However, I struggled to find a comfortable driving position. The seats had limited adjustments and a short (by my standards) cushion. It didn’t help that the steering wheel only adjusted for rake, not reach.

The interior of the 500e in Steam White with Electric Orange Accents. This looks great, but I'm not sure how you'd keep it clean.

The interior of the 500e in Steam White with Electric Orange Accents. This looks great, but I’m not sure how you’d keep it clean.

At 142.4 inches, the 500e is the smallest EV on the market with a back seat. If you chop the back seat off, you get a Smart fortwo Electric Drive which is only 106.1 inches long. Still, I can almost touch the back window of the Fiat from the front seat. The back seat of the Fiat is either (a) a torture chamber for adults, (b) a place for small children and dogs or (c) a parcel shelf. At least the seats split 50/50 and fold almost flat for a bit of cargo space. As a city car for one or two adults, it’s perfect. It’s just not the car you take to Costco or on long road trips.

The instrument panel and center console have been modified for the electric version of the ICE Fiat 500. It's a cleaner, intuitive layout.

The instrument panel and center console have been modified for the electric version of the ICE Fiat 500. It’s a cleaner, intuitive layout.

The official mileage rating for the 2015 Fiat 500e is 122 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) in the city and 108 MPGe on the highway – 116 MPGe combined. However, those numbers are meaningless as all anyone cares about is its actual range.  Most articles I’ve seen put the 500e’s range at between 80 – 100 miles on a single charge.  But Car & Driver came up with a real-world observed range of only 69 miles. Still, how often do you drive more than 69 miles a day? That’s more than enough for the average daily commute, with some side stops.

Here are some bullet-point random thoughts about the 500e:

The Good:

  • 83-kW electric motor with 111 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque
  • A large-for-its-size 24-kWh liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery
  • Standard Level 1 (120 volt) and Level 2 (240 volt) on board chargers that can fully charge the battery in 4 hours.
  • 6.6 kW / J1772 Compliant Charge System
  • Obligatory smartphone app with remote telematics
  • Comes fully loaded – the only options are the cosmetic eSports Package ($495) and a large power sunroof ($1,100)
  • Great lease price: $199/month/36 months ($217 with tax); only $999 down
  • Back up sensors
  • Single zine automatic climate control
  • Very quiet
  • Push button center console transmission easy and quick to select
  • Decent brake pedal feeling – not spongy

 

The Not So Good:

  • No keyless ignition. It seems oddly retro to turn a key to “start” an electric car
  • Tilt but no telescopic steering column
  • No backup camera (but that’s not too bad in a car this small)
  • No power seats; smallish seat cushion
  • Cheap after-market Tom Tom navigation is small by today’s standards and easily stolen from its dash top perch
  • Hard plastics everywhere
  • Plastic covers for AUX and USB ports break off the first time and every time you try to use them
  • HomeLink garage opener not available
  • Limited energy consumption displays, information and feedback
  • No Eco mode
  • No Brake or Low mode. Only one level of regenerative braking and it’s not very strong

 

See those two plastic covers for AUX and USB? They break off every time you lift one. Very disappointing quality.

See those two plastic covers for AUX and USB? They break off every time you lift one. Very disappointing quality.

To help set your mind at ease if you need to take a few trips that aren’t suitable for an electric car, Fiat offers the “Fiat 500e Pass” program:

Included with the purchase of the Fiat 500e, the program provides owners and lessees of a new Fiat 500e with up to 12 days of alternative transportation in a standard-sized vehicle each year for the first three years after purchase through Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental or Alamo Rent A Car in the U.S.

That’s a pretty good offer to sweeten the already great lease deal for the 500e. However, from what I can tell, the people with a 500e already have another car they can drive for longer trips – either a second car or one belonging to a family member.

The side profile of the 500e highlights the standard rear spoiler. It gives it a cheeky appearance that fits its spunky, fun demeanor.

The side profile of the 500e highlights the standard rear spoiler. It gives it a cheeky appearance that fits its spunky, fun demeanor.

To sum things up, I think the Fiat 500e is a fun, very affordable electric car and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to most drivers.  But it’s not the car for me.  Aside from some glaring feature omissions and the cheap plastic panels, I just couldn’t find a comfortable driving position. And that’s a deal killer.


Today I began my search for an all-electric city car.

There is a fairly limited selection of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) on the market, but I’m lucky to live in California which is ground zero for the nascent industry. While Tesla and its Model S grab most of the headlines, its lofty price tag (usually around $90,000+) renders it unobtainable for average consumers.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) requires a small percent of  the vehicles sold by large manufacturers in California to be zero emission vehicles (ZEVs). Zero emission vehicles are generally plug-in (battery) electric vehicles (PEV) while a very small number are powered by hydrogen fuel cells (FCEV).  California offers a generous $2,500 rebate if you purchase or lease a ZEV.  This is in addition to a federal tax credit of $7,500 for the purchase of an EV.

To clarify things, the federal tax credit is a “use it or lose it” credit. In other words, if you don’t use the whole credit in the year  you purchase the EV, you lose it.  This is great for wealthy customers who can afford a $100,000 Tesla Model S and likely pay more than $7,500 a year in federal income taxes. But the credit may be much more difficult to use if your income and car budget dictate a much more modestly-priced car.

This is where a lease is useful. When you lease an EV, the leasing company is able to use the federal credit to reduce  your lease payments. That’s why car companies like Fiat can offer a fully-loaded, $33,150 500e for $199/month for 36 months with only $999 down.  You see, when the credit is used by a business (in this case the Fiat’s captive finance company), it’s treated as a normal business credit which can be carried forward for up to 20 years.  As an individual taxpayer, you’re screwed.

The California rebate is just that: a cash rebate for the purchase OR lease of an ZEV. The lease must be for at least 36 months to qualify. And anyone, regardless of income or how much tax you pay, can claim the rebate.

So what’s a “compliance car” and why do I keep hearing that hurled at these EVs as a pejorative?

2014 Toyota RAV4 EV

2014 Toyota RAV4 EV

The 2014 Toyota RAV4 that I tested is a classic “compliance” car.  It was created solely to comply with the CARB zero emission vehicle requirements.

There is a misconception that just because a car was created solely to comply with regulations that it must be somehow half-baked. You know, they just rip out a conventional powertrain and stuff in an electric motor and a battery.  But while many of the compliance cars (e.g., Chevy Spark EV, Ford Focus EV, Fiat 500e, Honda Fit EV, Smart fortwo ED, Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Volkswagen e-Golf) on the surface appear to be cynical ploys to mollify the crazies in California, they are every bit as entertaining and capable as non-compliance cars (cars engineered and manufactured to be profitable and sold worldwide) like the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S and BMW i3.

It’s believed that most compliance cars aren’t profitable. For example, last May, Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne made headlines by asking people not to buy the Fiat 500e because he said FCA loses $14,000 on each one.  With no other ZEV in its portfolio, FCA needed to make the 500e to comply with the CARB rules.  It’s likely that Toyota loses a lot on each RAV4 EV, but it’s a drop in the bucket to a company as big and profitable as Toyota.

Toyota has a long history with Tesla. “Long” is a relative term when it comes to Tesla, which was only created in 2003. Way back in 2010, Toyota made a $50 million investment in Tesla and then nearly gave away to Tesla, at the bargain price of $42 million,  the shuttered manufacturing facility of New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) in Freemont, California.  Concurrently, Toyota and Tesla announced an agreement to develop an electric RAV4.  Tesla agreed to supply the powertrain (motor, battery, etc.) and electronics/electronic management software and Toyota did the rest of the engineering and manufacturing.  The old NUMMI plant is now the worldwide manufacturing plant for the Tesla Model S and the upcoming Model X.

Tesla provides the motor for the 2014 Toyota RAV4 EV.

Tesla provides the motor for the 2014 Toyota RAV4 EV.

Toyota never really tried very hard to market the RAV4 EV. It’s $50,625 (before federal tax credit), which is $15,000 more than a Nissan Leaf SL with a smaller battery but similar range.  It’s also about the same prices as a fully-loaded BMW i3, with none of the premium style and quality of the BMW.  When it was introduced in September of 2012, it was offered on lease for $599/month for 36 months with $3,500 down. Not many moved off dealer lots.

What got my attention was Toyota’s lease offer of $279/month for 36 months with $4,999 down.  When I shopped for the car on October 1, 2014, I was told that Toyota was still offering a similar deal to move the remaining 2014 inventory.  According to Toyota’s website, the latest offer is $289/month/36 months (12,000 miles/year) with $4,500 down. According to InsideEVs.com, Toyota needs to sell approximately 2,600 RAV4 EVs to satisfy its CARB quota and, as of October 1, they estimate there are around 470 left – or about a 2-month supply.

The 8 inch color infotainment screen is beautiful on the Toyota RAV4 EV.

The 8 inch color infotainment screen is beautiful on the Toyota RAV4 EV.

The 2014 RAV4 EV comes fully loaded – with no option packages or trim levels. Your only choice is the color: Classic Silver Metallic, Shoreline Blue Pearl and Blizzard (White) Pearl.  It’s chock full of goodies: In addition to the usual array of electronic stability nannies, the RAV4 EV sports an 8″ high-definition color infotainment touch-screen running Toyota’s latest generation Entune platform with a bunch of music apps and a specialized suite of EV applications including the location of charging stations and energy consumption. Naturally there is dual zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, auto-dimming mirrors, automatic headlights, LED running lights and taillights, HomeLink, backup camera, a manual tilt/telescope steering column and the same Smart Key and shifter from the Prius.

The instrument panel, center stack and electronic shifter are all unique to the RAV4 EV. The rest is pure stock, cheap, RAV4.

The instrument panel, center stack and electronic shifter are all unique to the RAV4 EV. The rest is pure stock, cheap, RAV4.

The RAV4 EV is relatively sporty. It boasts zero-60 in 7 seconds and a top speed of 100 mpg – faster that almost any other battery-electric vehicle except the Tesla Model S. The AC induction motor has a maximum 154 hp and up to 273 lb-ft of torque in Sport mode (218 lb-ft in Normal mode).  Just to contrast, the Nissan Leaf’s motor puts out 107 hp with 187 lb-ft torque and, according to Car & Driver, it takes a leisurely 10.2 seconds to hit 60 mph. Ouch.

Of course, if you keep it in Sport mode and drive with a heavy foot, you won’t get the claimed 103 miles per charge with the 41.8 kWh lithium-ion battery pack.  With the standard 10 kW onboard (SAE J1772) charger and the appropriate (240V, 40A) plug, the battery can fully recharge in 5-6 hours.  These are very important numbers when comparing battery-electric vehicles. The bigger the battery pack, the better. Just ask Tesla with it’s mammoth 85 kWh pack for a 260+ mile range. And the higher-capacity charger allows for faster charging.

The RAV4 EV cargo space looks completely normal. You'd never know there is a battery under all that.  Very handy.

The RAV4 EV cargo space looks completely normal. You’d never know there is a battery under all that. Very handy.

Like the ICE (green-speak for internal combustion engine) RAV4, it’s a handy little 4-door CUV. And also like the last-generation RAV4, it suffers from very cheap plastics, cheap cloth manually-adjusted seats and hard surfaces everywhere. It’s kind of a buzz-kill when you’re talking about 50 large.  With the battery sitting on the floor, there is no loss of interior space. It also feels planted, with a lower center of gravity than the standard RAV4. Of course, it weighs in at whopping 4,032 pounds.

So with all these numbers, what’s it like to drive? It’s utterly conventional and unremarkable except for the silence. With all of the torque instantly available, it’s very fast off the line, which is always exhilarating.  The electric power steering has absolutely no feel, but for a city car with no sporting ambitions, I guess it’s okay. Sitting in stop and go traffic, which represents a major chunk of my in-city driving, it wouldn’t matter. But on the twisties of a canyon road, it wouldn’t inspire much confidence, but I wouldn’t be frightened.

There is no spare tire holder on the back door of the RAV4 EV (there is no spare tire at all). The taillights are slightly different, but otherwise not much to distinguish the EV from the standard RAV4.

There is no spare tire holder on the back door of the RAV4 EV (there is no spare tire at all). The taillights are slightly different, but otherwise not much to distinguish the EV from the standard RAV4.

Visibility was excellent, as you sit up a little bit  high and there is plenty of glass.  In my short drive around the congested streets of Hollywood, it was easy to forget you were in an EV.  Regenerative braking was almost non-existent in normal Drive mode. Push it to B (brake) mode and you could feel some slowing when your lifted off the accelerator – but nothing like the heavy regenerative braking of the BMW i3 and little of the linear, smooth regen-braking of the Model S. The brakes themselves were very spongy, with no feedback. Ugh.

The RAV4 EV has been discontinued by Toyota. But have no fear, the Kia Soul EV will pick up where the RAV4 leaves off, except in a nicer package with more features for less money.

The RAV4 EV has been discontinued by Toyota. But have no fear, the Kia Soul EV will pick up where the RAV4 leaves off, except in a nicer package with more features for less money.

I also didn’t feel confident that the cheap front seats would be comfortable for any length of time and it’s impossible to tell from a test drive if I could find one. But what makes the 2014 RAV4 EV the most tempting is the zippy performance, particularly in Sports mode and its every-day utility.  The only better performance comes in the form of the BMW i3 or the unobtainable Tesla Model S.

After all is said and done, when it comes to an BEV city car, performance isn’t the the only metric.  I need a more comfortable, luxurious cabin with more supportive seats and better tactile and visually-appealing materials. For $50,000 – the RAV4 EV just doesn’t deliver.