Saturday, December 7, 2013

Honda Fit EV - The Agony and the Ecstasy of Electric Motoring

My Fit EV fills up at the Blink Network charging station.
The Honda Fit EV is a great example of everything that’s wonderful — and terrible — about living with an electric car. I just spent a week with a Reflection Blue FIT EV and it took me on a real adventure.

Let’s start with the upsides first. Nobody can argue that electric cars aren’t cleaner than gasoline burners. Of course, how much cleaner depends on how the electricity that you use is generated (coal-fired plant? Hydro-electric dam? Nuclear power plant?). But you aren’t burning anything in the car itself — there isn’t even a tailpipe.

The EPA’s green ratings for the Fit EV are a perfect 10 for Smog and Greenhouse Gas. The window sticker says you’ll save $9,100 in fuel costs over five years compared to the average new vehicle.

Electric motors are quiet and smooth. My tester made a little high-pitched whine when it gained momentum, but otherwise all I heard, even at freeway speeds, was a little hum from the tires and a very minimal bit of wind noise. Being a Honda, the car was well built and rattle- and buzz-free.

The price of electricity is significantly less than gasoline, especially if you generate it from your own rooftop solar panels. I don’t have any yet, but my research showed that to go 30 miles in a gas version of the Fit would take one gallon of gas at $4.00; an Electric fit would use about $1.00 worth of electricity.

How about the negatives? At this point, the biggest problem with electric cars, including the Fit, is range. Imagine if you had to put gas into your car’s tank three gallons at a time. With a 73-mile range like the Fit, you need a daily charge, if not twice a day. Charging at home in reasonable time means installing a 220-volt charger in your garage. Otherwise, at 110 volts, it could take longer to fill an empty battery than overnight. A 220-volt public charger takes about four hours.

Another range-related issue is usage. If you plan to drive your EV only for commuting, and your daily mileage fits comfortably within the car’s range, then you can charge it up at night and the cycle works. However, if you want to come home after work and then take your car out again, you may not be able to do it. Also, forget those 150-mile round trips to visit the grandkids or long vacation excursions. In these cases, you’d better take the other (gas) car.

Another problem is price. The Fit EV drives very nicely, is well finished, and comes pretty well equipped, but it’s still based on the Fit, which is Honda’s cheapest car. You can buy the basic gas-powered Fit starting at $16,215, while the price of my test car was $37,415! And despite their wildly different drivetrains, the two versions look nearly identical, except for a chrome smile up front and EV badges on the electric.

Nissan’s, the pioneer in the mainstream EV market, created a new model — the Leaf — to avoid this kind of comparison between basic gas model and upscale electric. Honda, along with Ford, Fiat, and Chevrolet, is using available platforms — a cost-saving move but one that may be harder to sell to the public.

There are significant federal and state rebates that can take up to $10,000 off the price of an EV, but it still costs a lot more than a gas-powered model. Good leasing deals are out there. Currently, you can lease a Fit EV for three years at $259 a month, although availability is very limited.

Of course, the Tesla Model S is another case entirely. It’s very expensive, starting at $71,070, but the range is not an issue, at 208 or 265 miles, depending on model. Most of us, though, will have to opt for the more ordinary EVs.

The challenge of driving an EV is learning how to live carefully on your meager energy budget. The Fit’s instrument panel has a Power/Charge gauge on the left that shows you if you’re using electricity or generating it and on the right is a full/empty gauge for the battery.

There is also a digital estimated range display front and center. You can make this figure larger or smaller depending on whether you choose Econ, Normal, or Sport mode on the left side of the steering column. With, Econ, the 100% full range is 73 miles. Pushing the Normal button drops that to 62, and Sport drops further to 56. These are approximations, and they can vary tremendously depending on how you drive.

Econ is the most frugal setting, but during the cold snap of my test week, I found that it reduced the heater function to nearly nothing. Switching to Normal restores normal climate function, and also makes the car much quicker off the line when you press the accelerator. Sport mode gives another boost to acceleration, but seems unnecessary otherwise.

My real adventure and educational experience was in getting the car charged up. My first day, I was surprised to drive my 30 miles to work and see the range drop from 59 to just 48. I had recovered a lot of the electricity because I was in terrible stop-and-go traffic. Secret: EVs do exceptionally well in these conditions, because speeds are low and there is plenty of opportunity to recharge the battery with regenerative braking.

With this success, I figured I was safe to take the trip back without a recharge. However, by the time I got close to home that Tuesday evening, the instruments were displaying a worrisome 11-mile range and a Low Battery warning light came on as I approached my house.

To avoid stress, on Wednesday, I went looking for a charging station near my office. I had used one before that was a 20-minute walk away, but it was a Blink Network site and I only had a ChargePoint card from the press fleet. So, I went to the nearest ChargePoint station — more than a mile away — and found that I couldn’t use it. It was on a major software company’s campus, and it was reserved.

However, I made a call to ChargePoint and was able to get connected — but I had to use the personal ChargePoint account I had set up months ago. I enjoyed a vigorous 35-minute walk back to the office, but I’d hate to have to do that every day. I got a ride to pick up the car later.

The following day, I decided to try using the ChargePoint chargers right across the street from my office. Although they were in front of a well-known video rental company, I thought that maybe the wizards at ChargePoint could open them up for me the way they had on Wednesday. The polite woman on the other side of the line did her best, but it was a no go. I then decided to try the Blink Network station again, hoping for a miracle.

I got my miracle. When I called Blink, Dustin told me that they have a Guest User plan. So, in five minutes, my hungry Fit was charging up. One more day was taken care of, and I got my nice 20-minute walk back to work.

I was beginning to feel like I had it together. I was much more relaxed having the security of a full charge morning and night. So, I drove in Normal instead of Econ mode and enjoyed the warmth and responsiveness that the Fit offers. That’s when I realized how much I enjoyed the car. The Fit is absolutely stable and feels light and taut, although my driving was not on exciting roads. The motor’s torque pulls you forward nicely, and the expansive glass greenhouse and long dash make it feel spacious. The silvery panels and light gray plastic (none of it padded) helped, too. I was able to play the audio system without any apparent impact on my electricity budget.

Charge companies keep in touch with you. I received text messages from ChargePoint telling me when the car was full — and also when I removed the charger from the car (in case it was someone else!). Blink Network sent me emails with the same contents. After my experience with them, I signed up for a free membership, so I’ll be ready when the next electric test car comes along.

The bottom line is, if you are willing to put up with the obvious issues of range and price, an EV may be for you — and the Honda is nice to drive and handy to use, with its hatchback. If I owned one, I would be sure there was a charger at my workplace and install one in my garage. I would also be sure to have a reliable second car that burns petrol available for longer trips.

There are other options. Besides the several EVs on the market, there are plug-in hybrids, which allow you limited all-electric driving and then switch to efficient hybrid operation. The Toyota Prius Plug-In and Ford C-Max Energi are good examples. Another choice is the Chevrolet Volt, which is an electric car with a built-in gasoline engine that’s used only as a generator to charge the battery for extended range.

These cars eliminate the range issues, but are still more expensive than comparable gasoline vehicles. They are even more expensive than their regular hybrid versions. And, they still use some gas.

The electric-only range for plug-in hybrids varies from about 13 miles for the Prius to 21 for the C-Max and 38 for the Volt. These models, like the current EVs and standard hybrids, are all interim steps that will eventually lead to what we really want — electric vehicles with a useful range, quick and convenient charging, and an affordable price.


Cathy Baird said...

Thanks. I went back and read your Leaf and Volt reviews, too, because I'm toying with the idea of getting a low-range or plug-in hybrid car. (Not soon, because I have a 4-year-old Camry, and I tend to drive cars into the ground.) You made those posts in previous years, and I'd be interested in a round-up of the pros and cons now that you've driven 3 electric or plug-in hybrids (that I know of).

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