An 'Electric' Avenue of New Car Options

Jan 4, 2017

High-end electric vehicles such as Tesla’s Models S and X are fast, powerful, glamorous -- and also expensive. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz wanted to know more about the view from inside a more subtle -- and affordable -- electric car.

[Sounds from the drive woven throughout]

A few weeks ago, on a quiet -- and what may have been December’s coldest -- night, Jonathan Lantz-Trissel and I stepped out of his warm house to go for a drive in his 2011 Nissan Leaf waiting for us right next to a solar inverter and a meter.

JONATHAN LANTZ-TRISSEL: The car’s plugged in, so it’s charging right now, so I’ll unplug it.

When Lantz-Trissel started car shopping two years ago, he didn’t think he could afford an electric car. But even then, just a few years into the Leaf line, the used market proved accessible. The car, he says, is a money saver, even if the batteries need to be replaced in a few more years: there’s no transmission in the car, and no oil to change; it has a regenerative braking system that minimizes conventional brake wear; and if he didn’t have his own solar panels, he’d be paying the electric grid price for power -- the equivalent of $1 a gallon for gas.

LANTZ-TRISSEL: Do you want to drive?

The car even offers an “eco mode,” which makes the accelerator pedal more difficult to push down.

LANTZ-TRISSEL: It discourages you from just jackrabbit starts or whatever.

CLYMER KURTZ: But that’s the fun part.

LANTZ-TRISSEL: Yeah, exactly.

LANTZ-TRISSEL: You really should drive it at some point. I'll pull over at the next convenient place.

The 2017 Leaf and comparably priced models such as the Ford Focus Electric and the Volkswagen e-Golf boast ranges of 100 or more miles; the anticipated Chevrolet Bolt, not to be confused with the Volt, Chevy’s gas-electric hybrid, will cost a bit more and get closer to 200 miles.

CLYMER KURTZ: How do I turn it on?

LANTZ-TRISSEL: Just shift over and down, and now you’re in drive.

CLYMER KURTZ: This is weird.

LANTZ-TRISSEL: You're ready to go. You just have to press the accelerator.

Lantz-Trissel is more than fine with his older car’s 70 miles range.

LANTZ-TRISSEL: People have a funny idea of how many miles they drive or how far it is to places. In reality, around Harrisonburg most people aren't driving 70 miles in a day.

Low rolling resistance tires are limiting in snow and ice, but swapping them for more weather-appropriate tires could halve the car’s range. That and farmsteading mean that Lantz-Trissel also owns a gas-powered pickup truck, which can fill in when the car’s range is inadequate.

He’s not the only electric car evangelist to also rely on gas power.

Alleyn Harned is the executive director of Virginia Clean Cities, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and promotes alternative fuel use. He owns a Toyota Prius for longer trips, but I met him recently in  Harrisonburg where he had pulled his electric car -- another of the state’s 5,000 -- up to one of the several publicly accessible charging options in the city, this one a supercharging station in a busy shopping and dining area off of East Market Street.

ALLEYN HARNED: This is capable of fast charging an electric car in about 30 minutes.

Harned says that the biggest obstacle to electric vehicles isn’t their range. It’s inertia, and it’s preventing jobs growth.

HARNED: We’re all very used to our vehicles. We're used to gasoline. My car, which runs on electricity, can be powered by all sorts of fuels in Virginia that generate a huge, wide range of jobs.

Even though electric cars have their skeptics, the Union of Concerned Scientists says that “over their lifetime, battery electric vehicles produce far less global warming pollution than their gasoline counterparts -- and they’re getting cleaner.”

Back on that cold December night, as I turn into Jonathan Lantz-Trissel’s gravel driveway, the car speaks.

[Sound of the car’s low battery warning.]

LANTZ-TRISSEL: That's Harriet, we call her, she whispers to us in hushed tones about the state of our battery.

I pull Harriet up to her charger.

CLYMER KURTZ: And so you just push a button and it's off. It’s just as quiet as when it was on.

LANTZ-TRISSEL: Yeah. It’s pretty nice, although the kids are really loud when there's nothing else to drown them out.

Report and video from the Union of Concerned Scientists comparing the environmental impacts of battery and gas-powered vehicles

Map of electric car charging stations