A couple decades ago, I had a wife, two children and a 1977 Dodge van. The last had a 318-cubic-inch engine that powered me along at about 22 miles per gallon on the Interstate. But we more often measured gas consumption by the time between rest stops.
“I need a bathroom,” would come the cry.
“We don’t need gas, yet,” I would reply.
The gas tank was good for about six hours if forward motion was kept under 70 mph and the mountains were not steep. Over 70, even on level ground, you could almost see the gas needle fall from Full to “you should have stopped a couple miles back.”
Later, I drove a full-size Ford Bronco, 5.8-liter V-8, with about the same mileage, and last weekend I motored to the Pennsylvania Auto Show, in a 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee, 4.0-liter six-cylinder motor, same gas consumption. I hoped to see promise of a vehicle that would do what I want it to do, and not cloud my air doing it. I was not alone.
The Farm Show Complex, in Harrisburg, was full of proof that fossil-fueled transportation is not likely to disappear any time soon. And there were plenty of young humans hanging around this year’s motorized offerings – inspecting a selection of cars not much bigger than the strollers in which they pushed their germinating families.
The Fiat 500C, for instance, which accented this winter’s football bowl games with Jennifer Lopez jumping out of the sunroof, was, at the show, a target of parents beset with growing grocery bills, and unencumbered by previous generations’ inculcated belief that anything smaller than an Abrams tank was a death trap.
Unfortunately, the diminutive 32 mpg 500C had, for at least some prospective buyers, an unwieldy price tag.
“$26,000 for that?” a young dad exclaimed. “For what?”
Sticker shock may have explained why a significantly larger, presumably more comfortable, and arguably more distance-worthy vehicle sat lonesomely across the aisle. The Chevrolet Volt, with an electric drive train and a gasoline engine to maintain battery charge, can go more than 300 miles before needing its 9.3-gallon gas tank refilled. (My 300-mile Dodge van had an 18-gallon tank.)
“You can drive to Los Angeles, if you want,” said Jena-Christine, a product specialist down from Detroit to explain such things.
Starting price was $39,995, which she was quick to point out taxpayers would help pay – with a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 and Pennsylvania rebate of $3,500 – bringing the price down to about $29,000. Even with the taxpayer help, that’s a lot of money for a startup family interested in saving the planet, their kids’ lungs, and their family finances.
For about the same price, a buyer could have an all-electric Nissan LEAF. It does not have a gas engine, but seems to be helping create the need for a nationwide network of charging stations. Michael Ashworth, a very helpful sales specialist from an area dealership, pointed out there are more than 10,000 of the diminutive buggies on the road nationwide.
Pike Research, a Colorado-based company which tracks such things, forecasts 13,000 charging stations in the U.S. by the end of 2012, and more than 1.5 million by 2017.
Ashworth said the LEAF would get about 60-80 miles on the highway, on about $10 worth of electricity – assuming the current price of residential electricity. On a recent trip to New England, my Jeep eked about 350 miles out of $50 worth of gasoline – making the cost of the trip about the same for both vehicles.
Of course, a fuel stop for the Jeep was about 30 minutes every 300 miles. In the LEAF, it would have been 30 minutes to an hour every 60-80 miles. On the other hand, the LEAF is not, I think, really a long-distance touring car.
“This car essentially does not leave a carbon footprint,” Ashworth said.
“Essentially” is the key word. Although the car has no gasoline-burning emissions while it is being driven, it does use electricity, much of which is generated by coal-fired generating plants.
Still, it is easier on the lungs than being stuck in rush-hour traffic in my Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Battery technology has not quite come to replace our dinosaur-fueled vehicles, but it’s getting closer. Toyota plans a plug-in version of its gas-and-electric Prius, and an all-electric version of its Scion IQ (about the same size vehicle as the Fiat 500C or Nissan LEAF) later this year. And it may have an all-electric RAV4 SUV by this summer.
The RAV4 is to be powered by a drive train designed and built by Tesla Motors Inc., a company with its own all-electric sports car featuring more than 300 miles on a full charge and power to go 0-60 in under four seconds.
One thing was clear: electric vehicles are expensive. It hardly seems right that preserving the planet and the health of its inhabitants should be reserved for the most financially able of the inhabitants.
Photo by John Messeder
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