Portland, Ore. ? With electric vehicle sales doubling in the first six months of 2013 (over 2012) my job has changed. Rather than talking about performance, ride and fuel economy, much of the emphasis has gone to range, charge times and tax incentives.
Looking at my log of the cars that my wife Barbara and I have driven in the last 18 months, I count eight pure electrics, and that?s only a fraction of the electric cars on the market. In addition, we?ve driven at least a dozen hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Related, but similar in purpose are the clean diesels ? we expect a proliferation of new diesel models in the next couple of years.
As the transition continues, I have to confess that I like driving electric vehicles. I like the simplicity, the quiet, the fact that I didn?t have to add gas, or check the oil. However, like most Americans, I too suffer range anxiety. The best cure, I?ve driven is the Chevrolet Volt. It has that handy built-in battery charger ? a small gasoline engine that kicks in to charge the battery after it uses up of the initial charge.
As far as the pure electrics go, I think I have a new favorite, and it?s also a Chevrolet ? the Spark EV.
At the press launch in Portland, Oregon in July, I found myself sprinting through traffic, running up and down hills and generally having a fun time in the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV. The EV also has a tight 33.8-foot turning radius, which makes it perfect for the zigzag moves and the agile handling necessary to zip through urban traffic. To make it even more drivable, I could pull the shifter into ?L? and take advantage of the electric vehicle equivalent of engine braking, which as a bonus, adds more charge to the battery through the regenerative braking system.
The 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV, is like the performance version of the Chevrolet Spark. The regular gas-powered Spark gets its ?go? from a 84-hp 1.2-liter DOHC four cylinder engine, and as you might guess, it doesn?t ?go? very quickly. Zero to 60 acceleration takes 11.2 seconds but fuel economy is good at 32 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. The spark weighs about 2,400 pounds and has a 9.2-gallon fuel tank, which should give it a range of about 312 miles for a $33 fill-up.
The Spark EV, on the other hand, weighs about 3,000 pounds, has an advanced electric motor and battery system. The coaxial drive unit and electric motor produce 140 hp (more than105 kW) and 400 lb.-ft. of torque from a 20-kWh lithium ion battery. To give those numbers some perspective, that?s more torque than either the Porsche 911 or Ferrari 458 Italia. The massive torque drives this front-wheel drive mini car from 0 to 60 mph in just 7.6 seconds and to a top speed of 90 mph. It?s more than 3.5 seconds quicker than the gas version and it is also the fastest car in this category. In addition, the fuel economy equivalent is much better than the gas.
Comparing fuel economy is like comparing apples and walnuts, so the EPA has developed a numerical comparison, which is MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent). The EV is rated at 128 MPGe city and 109 MPGe highway, and the battery has a range of 82 miles, if the driver is very careful. A lead foot, enthralled with the 400-lb.ft. of torque will run out of juice in about 50 miles.
With a dedicated 240-volt outlet, Spark EV recharges in less than seven hours using a few dollars? worth of electricity and if there is time overnight, the owner can set the charging to occur when the electrical rates are lower. The process can also be managed remotely on a computer using OnStar.com, or with a special Chevrolet Mobile smart phone app powered by OnStar Remote Link.
Spark EV is also the first all-electric vehicle in North America to offer optional SAE Combo DC Fast Charge capability, which can charge the battery to 80 percent of capacity in about 20 minutes. A common on-board charging receptacle accommodates all three charging platforms ? DC Fast Charge, AC 240-volt and AC 120-volt. Chevrolet estimates that owners will save about $9,000 in fuel over five years compared to the average new vehicle.
Battery life for the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV is warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles. ?The Spark EV battery has undergone more than 200,000 hours of testing in our global battery systems labs,? according to Pamela Fletcher, Chevrolet executive chief engineer of electrified vehicles. ?It is extremely durable and has undergone the same abuse tolerance testing as the Volt battery.?
The Spark EV may be a mini car, but it has abundant technologies to aid the driver. Critical functions are intuitively displayed on one of the vehicle?s two reconfigurable, high-resolution, seven-inch color LCD screens. The main instrument panel screen has a confidence gauge that shows the expected driving range based on driving habits and other conditions.
The other screen, mounted on the center stack, connects the car with Chevrolet?s exclusive MyLink radio that comes standard and safely brings smartphone-based infotainment ? including apps for BringGo full-function navigation, TuneIn global internet radio, Pandora and Stitcher ? into the vehicle. The Apple Siri system can be accessed through MyLink for customers with compatible (4S and newer) iPhones.
The Spark styling is very much Chevrolet with the family front end and large gold bowtie mounted in the center. A close inspection of the front grill uncovers a solid grill material that improves aerodynamics by forcing the air around the car instead of letting it in to provide engine cooling. The aerodynamic Spark EV design looks like a two door, but when you look closely, it?s actually a four-door. The rear door handles are mounted in the C pillars where they don?t show as easily.
Despite its small size, the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV is quite roomy on the interior. Four adults fit comfortably in upright seating positions, and there is still room for cargo. When more space is needed, the rear seatbacks can be folded to provide up to 23.4 cubic feet of storage space.
With its near noiseless motor, the Spark EV is very quiet on the road with little road noise and no wind noise making its way into the cabin. While the quiet is great for the passengers, it can be a challenge for pedestrians who probably won?t hear the Spark coming. So, at speeds up to 18 mph the Spark emits a broadband noise and harmonics to warn pedestrians that there?s a Spark coming.
The initial price of buying an electric vehicle is significantly more than buying the four-cylinder model, but tax incentives take a big bite out of the price. The base price of a Spark LS with manual transmission starts at $12,995, including the destination charge. The top of the line 2LT with automatic transmission is $17,210.
The 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV pricing starts at $27,495 for the 1LT model or $27,820 for the 2LT, which adds front leatherette, heated front seats and leather wrapped steering wheel. When the full federal tax credit of $7,500 is applied, the price drops to only $19,995 for the 1LT. In addition, different states and communities offer other tax credits and incentives that could drop the price by up to $2,500 more. In California, the Spark EV also qualifies for the High-Occupancy Vehicle or carpool lane with just the driver onboard. Currently the Spark EV is only available through California and Oregon Chevrolet dealers.