The more electrified the car, the greener it is, but that comes at the cost of greater potential convenience.
That's the theme that emerged from AJAC's first Brighton to London Eco-Run, an eye-opening three-day, 330-kilometre exercise in sampling and comparing the full spectrum of fuel-efficient vehicles and technologies.
The pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV and Mitsubishi i-MiEV) were the futuristic stars of the event, front and centre at most press conferences and photo shoots. But they were also the automotive divas of the group, requiring much more care behind the scenes. Plus one prototype BEV encountered a tabloid-worthy 'oops' moment, when its driver got so lost he ran out of charge at the side of a rural road, and never made it to the finish line.
The extended-range Chevrolet Volt electric vehicle and the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid shone in these unfamiliar and less populated environments, with no "range anxiety" worries of being stranded thanks to their typical 480 km or so ranges. The prototype Prius plug-in offered only about a third of the all-electric range of the Volt, but the two evened out a bit in overall fuel use, as the Prius is the stingier of the two when using gasoline.
It should also be noted that all these plug-in vehicles were charged using some grid power throughout the course of the event, but also with electricity derived from a towed mobile diesel generator. It was brought along to help power the Schneider 240V EVSE chargers, when other options were unavailable, and 110V charging would simply take too long.
Such organizational challenges and admittedly less-than-environmentally-ideal solutions helped highlight the practical drawbacks of battery-only EVs, which are ill-suited to long inter-city journeys. But no such plug-in concerns with "conventional" gas-electric hybrids, which generate their electricity through regenerative braking and in some using the engine's surplus power to charge up the additional mileage-boosting battery.
Seven of the 22 vehicles taking part in the Eco-Run were hybrids, with another seven being powered by regular internal combustion engines, featuring a variety of fuel-saving technologies. Plug-in vehicles accounted for the final third, with one lone Volkswagen Passat TDI representing the market's growing diesel contingent.
The entire participant vehicle list, the three daily schedules, as well as the three (intended) routes from Brighton to Oshawa, then Toronto, to Oakville, Hamilton, Woodstock and then finally London, Ont., are all listed now on the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's website at ajac.ca.
Eco-Run partner Natural Resources Canada helped record and calculate observed fuel economy throughout the event, although as it is quick to point out, these real-world results are by no means scientifically valid. Different drivers with varying degrees of interest or ability in eco-driving impacted the observed numbers, perhaps due to some unintentionally veering off course and then trying to make up time, others by carrying multiple passengers. Plus the combined city and highway data were taken from the car's onboard computers, and not verified for accuracy.
Then there are the inevitable complications in comparing liquid fuel use with electricity, with NRCan using a 'Litres equivalent/100 km' rating, after calculating that a litre of gasoline contains the energy equivalent of 8.9 kWh of electricity.
"No one's counting the diesel fuel used to generate that electricity in their [BEV's fuel consumption]numbers," noted one non-BEV manufacturer rep. "That could change things too." He could have also arguably added in a portion of the fuel used by the V-8 pickup truck that towed the generator and EVSEs over the entire 330-km journey, for each car that used it.
Even with those caveats, the figures provided show that driving style is a huge factor in improving fuel economy, with NRCan's own Malibu hybrids showing a 25 per cent reduction in fuel used when driven in a gentle "Eco-Run" manner, instead of a more usual style that just keeps up with flow of traffic.
After participant drivers were encouraged a few hours into the event by NRCan to use similarly simple fuel-saving driving techniques – look up to avoid braking whenever possible, turn off the ignition at long red lights or train crossings, accelerate gently to avoid as many revs as possible – the percentage of drivers who achieved or exceeded the federal government's official Energuide sticker ratings jumped from 70 to 80 per cent, said NRCan, out of a sample of 14 vehicles from that first day.
Comparing the cars
My final list of driven vehicles consisted of a descending scale of automotive electrification, from a pure electric-only BEV (Ford Focus EV), an extended range EV (Chevrolet Volt, which in reality is an advanced plug-in hybrid with an extra-large battery), a prototype of an admitted plug-in hybrid (Toyota Prius PHV), and a Kia Optima Hybrid.
- The Focus EV was by far the smoothest and quietest of the four I drove, and just as phantomly silent as our Nissan Leaf, with a similar 160 km estimate of total range. It seems more powerful off the line, as I actually achieved some wheelspin on a wet road when I goosed it. The car achieved a stellar 1.6 Le/100 km over the event, the same as the Leaf on the event, its main rival. Unfortunately, there are no official NRCan numbers yet available for the Focus EV, though in the U.S., it’s officially rated at 2.2 Le/100 km. Unlike the Leaf, however, one could tell that the Focus EV was a converted gasoline car, as part of the electrification gear ate up a sizable bite out of the hatchback’s cargo area. Plus the Focus EV won’t be available at launch with a DC 480-volt quick-charge option, said Ford of Canada electrification manager Steve Ross, when the Focus EV starts arriving in big city Canadian dealers by early June.
- The Chevrolet Volt also doesn’t offer a quick charge option, but doesn’t need it as much, thanks to its ability to generate electricity using (premium) fuel once its electricity is used up. It sacrifices a fifth seat to the battery, but achieved an event average of 3.2 Le/100 km, compared to its official NRCan figures of 2.5 Le/100 km in full electric mode, and a 5.6/6.7 L/100 km in city/hwy ratings in gasoline mode.
- Toyota’s Prius plug-in hybrid was another prototype car, but seemed well-integrated, with a relatively quiet switch from EV mode to engine-on mode. But it only offered an observed 15.4 km worth of all-electric range in my time with it, even driving super carefully, in Eco mode and with no A/C or highway use. After an unintentionally long 104 km behind the wheel, including some in catch-up mode, the dash stated I averaged 3.7 L/100 km. Unfortunately, no NRCan or U.S. EPA figures to provide a more scientific point of reference here.
- Then finally there was the Kia Optima Hybrid, which averaged 6.3 L/100 km over the event, slightly higher than its official NRCan 5.6 city and 4.9 L/100 km highway figures. But it had by far the roomiest back seat and cargo area, even with some hybrid component intrusion, though this prevented the rear seats from folding