My problem with electric cars: Distance, Diesel, and the lack of both

Having an electric car might be good. There’s no combustion motor of any kind in it. Instead, they are entirely battery-powered. GM made the EV1, which apparently was a good car, but they were recalled and destroyed. (All but a few escaped.) Since then, electric cars have been largely off the map. That has begun to change, though. Perhaps the post-Katrina energy crises have spurred a renewed interest. Honda has had hybrids for many years, and GM seems to be offering a mea culpa with its Chevy Volt gas-electric, and GM subsidiary Volvo is the latest car company to unveil an all-electric car, claiming theirs will get about 90 miles per charge.

Back in 2003, I test drove a Honda Civic hybrid. It was neat, although it felt a little small. That is understandable when you consider that I very nearly died at the hands of a drunk SUV driver while I was driving an ’89 Civic. I told the dealer I’d wait for the hybrid Accord. But as it turned out, those weren’t too hot to mileage geeks like me, as the Accord hybrid emphasized power over efficiency. I was looking for mileage, not performance. (And this was even before Hurricane Katrina sent gas prices spiraling!)

In 2005, I traded in my non-hybrid Honda Accord V6 — which was crippled with by an automatic transmission — and got myself a shiny new Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which was billed as having over 42 MPG highway. After about 20,000 miles, it got closer to 50 MPG highway. The mileage plunges the second I tap the brakes or downshift, but with regular highway driving and minimal city driving — and if I drive it right and don’t enjoy the RocketChip upgrade too much (still have yet to get a speeding ticket!), I get well over 600 miles per tank. When diesel fuel topped $4.00/gallon, I was feeling to too, although perhaps a bit less than the poor soccer moms and dooooodes in their mighty SUVs that got under 12 MPG with the A/C turned on.

What’s this got to do with electric cars?

The highway driving that I do each week totals about 90 miles round trip. With the aforementioned Volvo electric will supposedly get about 90 miles per charge. Assuming that I had one, I could apparently make it most of the way there and back, but the car would croak within a few miles of home. That’s no good, so we’ll cross that off.

GM claims that the Chevy Volt can go 40 miles on juice alone before firing up the gas engine. That’s nice too, but… it’s got a gas engine. I hate to sound like a snob, but I’m sorry, gas engines are inefficient wasters of fuel. My VW TDI goes twice the distance on half the fuel that a gas car uses, but it still can get most of the way to 60 MPH in second gear. It’s a good start that the Volt can go 40 miles without starting the gas motor. But on a good day I can go over 40 miles on less than a gallon of diesel. It will be hard to buy a gasoline-powered car again because of that.

Yes, of course there are advantages to not using any liquid fuel to go the first 40 miles. That would get me about half way on my trip. It’s a shame that GM thinks diesel motors have to be huge and can only go in trucks and vans. The diesel motor in my car is built for efficiency. If there was an option to get a Volt with an efficient diesel engine, the total mileage would see a nice increase. And it could go well beyond the 600 miles per tank-charge that they’re talking about. I get that now with my all-combustion car. If someone can come up with a 100% electric car that could guarantee 150 to 200 miles per charge, I’d be interested. Or if it was diesel-electric hybrid that could give me 1,000 miles per tank-charge without modification, I’d be very interested.

It’s possible. Let’s see it!

Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.