Driving Alternative Fuel Cars in San Diego
Like we've said before, alternative fuel cars are pretty great, but people want to know how they actually drive. We're here to answer that question; having driven the latest and most popular alternative fuel vehicles for the better part of a week (only up and down the notorious Southern California freeways, but to be fair that can be quite the punishment), we better understand how alternative fuel cars really drive. If you're looking for our thoughts on diesels or hybrids, check out Part 1. For now, we're going to discuss the latest and greatest plug-in hybrids, all electric cars, and those really alternative fuels, hydrogen and natural gas.
Image: James Hamel
2014 Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid vs. 2014 Chevy Volt: We separated these two amazing plug-in hybrid models into their own section not only because they both do their jobs amazingly well or because many states still grant them sole occupant access to freeway car pool lanes (making the 5 feel less like a dementor)—we did so because we think both deserve kudos for their truly flawless engineering feats, and for the fact that they can both travel on a full electric charge on battery power alone with the “extra” gas motor only kicking in after 40 miles or so, depending on how frugally you do or, ahem, don’t drive. It’s hard to drive either the Accord Plug-In or the 2014 Chevy Volt like a stereotypical hybrid car because both vehicles are so fun to drive and offer owners freedom from all-electric range anxiety.
Image: James Hamel
Not only was a tremendous amount of work involved in giving both vehicles sporty yet compliant rides, but they corner and steer in a manner rarely seen in this segment. No matter if we were in pure electric or got a big of a push from the gas motor, each vehicle kept us entertained with plenty of zip and refinement. To decide, the Accord Plug-in has five seats and the Volt only has four, so quite frankly that may be your best chance at choosing which to buy (there's always the coin toss, or brand loyalty). These two truly are green car superstars.
2014 Honda Fit EV : We have listed our favorite all-electric powered vehicles in order from best to worst here, and unquestionably the Fit EV manages to cram one of the longest traveling ranges with the truly fun-to-drive nature Honda has mastered. Electric boost in the Fit EV comes on strong, especially when it is set in a class unique “Sport” mode. The only downside is that despite a very attractive lease deal, Honda is only planning on selling them in small numbers in only a few states this year. Fortunately, California is one of those states - just be prepared to pay full price.
2014 Chevy Spark EV: The Spark EV was another surprisingly fun to drive electric subcompact model, but given that electric batteries offer up copious amounts of torque right from when you touch the accelerator this should be no surprise. The Spark EV also has a very attractive lease so stop by your local Chevy retailer to see what this green machine can do to “light up your life.”
2014 Fiat 500e: Our experience with all-electric models has been that those which are built on platforms for vehicles that already exist are always the best. And while we only drove it a short while, we found we preferred the electric 500 to the basic hatch model. But not the Abarth, nothing tops that. Though this Fiat isn't very widely available - you may have to travel a small bit to find one - but it may also be worth the effort.
Mitsubishi i-Mi-EV: Looking like the lovechild of a golf-cart and Pokémon, the Mitsubishi i-Mi-EV is at the very least one of the cheapest electric cars to buy at a bit over $23,000. Plus it comes with a nice 8 year/10,000 mile warranty on all battery components. So it should be cheap to run if you're looking for an inexpensive, alternative fuel commuter car. If not scary to look at directly...
2014 Nissan Leaf: The Leaf has attempted to up its appeal in recent years after sales have been much slower than anticipated. They've added more upscale features like optional leather seats (which, incidentally, are made from oil products), a heated steering wheel, center console stylized appliqué covers (to enhance interior personalization and decrease to dorkiness factor), heated front and rear seats, Bose Premium audio with USB and Bluetooth functionality, and better looking alloy wheels. But this all-electric hatchback is still one of our least favorite cars because it just isn't appealing to drive: body roll and tire howl is the order of the day at most cornering speeds, the steering feel has minimal sensation, and interior materials don’t feel durable or pleasant to touch. Oh, yes, and it is expensive too: the 2014 Leaf with top line SL trim hits the $35,000 threshold all the while still lacking optional Bose audio and Nissan’s clever around view monitor system (which makes parking their cars so easy, even in congested cities). This is then when the price gets way too close to a far more sensible Chevy Volt, a much smarter buy.
Natural Gas Powered
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2014 Honda Civic Natural Gas: This Civic sedan drives and rides much like any Civic, and that should be enough to convince anyone, but given the fact that Natural Gas is one of the cleanest burning fuels available (and most easily found on U.S. soil), Honda openly admits that rarely do they ever see any problems with the standard 1.8 liter 110 horsepower/106 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder that is standard with the four door sedan. Apparently these motors with 200,000-300,000 miles on them show routinely little to no build up on any internal moving parts once Honda finishes testing and tearing them back down for quality checks. Hello, low maintenance costs!
We recommend the $27,000 Civic Natural Gas Model with the in-dash navigation unit that points out the nearest locations for refueling stations (because awesome). Still, apparently 80% of United States residents live close enough to a Natural gas station to own this vehicle without worry. Lastly, natural gas is also usually running much cheaper than premium unleaded making this a great green commuter.
Honda FCX Clarity Hydrogen Powered Sedan: Getting the opportunity to drive the hydrogen powered Honda FCX Clarity for a full week in Southern California (currently the only place where refueling stations exist) was a true career highlight this writer never believed could happen... that is, until later Honda invited us to drive one on their Japanese Twin Motegi race track at over 100 miles per hour. Wow. This car drives like a science fiction film with the only noise heard seemingly being what the Starship Enterprise also made as it accelerated away on impulse power. Floor the Clarity’s throttle and it can sound a bit more like warp speed, and feel capable of it too.
At the time of our test fuel stations weren’t even charging for the hydrogen they dispensed as no one had yet come up with a proper monetary value for it. Well, now that Honda is partnered with General Motors on a massive new hydrogen project, apparently a Government study recently found bringing hydrogen stations to 85% of U.S. homes would cost $8 or $9 billion dollars. While that's cheap for the Government to be involved, and we assure you refueling a hydrogen vehicle is as quick as with gasoline, the Clarity traveled over 300 miles on one tank and, as for safety, do note that hydrogen is a very light compound that would dissipate into the atmosphere quickly if the fuel cell holding it was pierced in an accident. That doesn’t happen if your gas tank busts open. Now which one do you think was our favorite?
While most hybrid, electric, and other alternative fuel manufacturers require car owners to have their regularly scheduled services taken care of at the dealership, there are plenty of non-essential maintenance tasks that can be taken care of more cheaply at an independent auto repair shop. And when your manufacturer's warranty expires, Convoy Auto Repair will be right there to keep your alternative fuel car driving for many more years.
James Hamel is a freelance road tester, auto journalist, and Motor Press Guild full member. Find past work at Autobytel.com and current work at iSeeCars.com. Contact James at [email protected]