I’m a liberal and a car enthusiast, which makes me a weirdo. While I care deeply about the environment, the last thing I want is the decline and fall of the sports car.
The good news is, I don’t think that will happen. The beautiful 2014 Corvette will achieve near 30 miles per gallon as well as 200 miles per hour flat out, given enough tarmac. Anyone who’s driven a Mini Cooper S or a tweaked Volkswagen Golf TDI knows you can go fast while getting 35 miles per gallon or more. The Tesla Model S Performance sedan demonstrates you can get serious speed and gorgeous styling along with pure electric power and zero emissions. I rode in a preproduction model back in 2009 and it was amazing. In fact, with its 265-mile range when properly optioned, it makes the single strongest case for an electric car-filled future.
The thing is, that Tesla Model S costs $94,900. For that reason and several others, pure electric cars won’t be the answer for mainstream consumers—today, tomorrow, and possibly forever.
Electric Car Sales Are Down…
We’re already seeing the results in dealer showrooms. Sales of the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius Plug-in fell precipitously in January, despite massive federal tax credits, according to Reuters. GM’s Chevrolet Volt, with its ingenious electric drivetrain that employs an auxiliary gasoline engine to charge the batteries during long distance driving, isn’t selling well, either. Industry analysts point to a chicken-and-egg scenario, thanks to the lack of charging stations and high upfront prices, at least when compared to similarly-sized and equipped gasoline cars.
But it’s really more complex than that. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, electric cars only make sense for short-distance commuters with a house and a garage, where the car can charge up every night. Even if we had charging stations everywhere, no one is going to wait around for four hours while shopping or getting a haircut. It would only be feasible for charging the car while at work.
Only a massive revolution in battery technology could solve this problem, but it may not be necessary. Already, today’s economy cars regularly average in the mid-30s in fuel economy. (Manufacturers keep touting 40mpg in commercials, but it’s a highway-only number, and it’s tough to hit in the real world.) Midsize sedans like the 2013 Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry are pushing past the 30 mpg mark, which is pretty amazing given their average size of 190 to 192 inches long and 3000+ pound curb weights. Many compact crossover SUVs average 25mpg or better. The better hybrids and clean diesels exceed all of these numbers by a considerable margin.
…And For Good Reason
But all of those cars use gas or diesel fuel, you say, and that’s bad for the environment and contributes to global warming. Sure, but electric cars remain severely impractical. Picking up a new 30mpg Honda Accord for $25,000, or a 35mpg Mazda3 Skyactiv for $20,000, makes much more sense than paying $30,000 for a Nissan Leaf that you can’t drive more than 50 miles without freaking out about the batteries dying, or that you have to wait all night for it to recharge properly. If you aren’t as big into handling or performance, you can get a hybrid like the Toyota Camry or Prius and save even more on gas, although you’ll pay a bit more up front for the privilege and won’t break even for several years.
Something most people miss about fuel economy is important to point out. Take a thirsty SUV like a now-discontinued Hummer H2, which averaged 10 mpg on a good day, and replace it with a large crossover SUV that averages 20 mpg. Then take a midsize sedan that averages 25 mpg, and replace it with a Prius that averages 50 mpg. Which is the bigger improvement?
The results may surprise you: It’s the crossover SUV, and by a long shot. The Hummer, averaging 10 mpg and driving 100,000 miles over the course of its life, will burn through 10,000 gallons of gas. The crossover SUV will burn through 5,000 while driving the same number of miles, for a savings of 5,000 gallons. Meanwhile, the midsize sedan would burn through 4,000, while the Prius would burn through just 2,000, for a savings of 2,000 gallons. The person in the first scenario is making a much larger improvement. The Prius is still the best for the environment, but the difference in gas consumed per mile driven is smaller.
A Difficult Road Ahead
In other words, you have diminishing returns at play. Enthusiasts argue about the pros and cons of hybrids, diesels, and gas cars. But it’s getting people out of 10 and 15 mpg, body-on-frame SUVs and older vehicles, and into today’s ultra-clean, more efficient cars and crossovers that has the biggest impact—and that’s true for energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, and other pollutants that destroy the environment and contribute to global warming.
From there, switching those people into expensive, massively impractical electric cars won’t have as much of an effect as it initially appears. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit we can get at first, with more clean diesel engines, auto stop-start systems, improved transmissions, and ever-more-efficient drivetrains.
We also still need more research into hydrogen fuel cells, solar, wind, and other power sources. I personally wish we’d see more hydrogen-powered cars like the Honda FCX Clarity, and natural-gas powered cars like the Civic. And if GM can figure out how to sell a $20,000 Volt, it could have a massive impact. But until then, hybrids, clean diesels, and regular gas-powered cars have made huge strides in fuel economy with reduced emissions, and most importantly, require little to no compromises. Unless electric cars can overcome that last hurdle, they’ll never take off.
For more, read A Tour of a Tesla Store, or click on the Tesla Store slideshow below.
For more from Jamie, follow him on Twitter @jlendino.
By Jamie Lendino, PCMag