2015 Autos: Supercharged Electric Cars

Battery operated vehicles lag in popularity, but newer versions could change that.

November 26, 2014

Barely five years after introducing the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid, General Motors will unveil an all-new version of the Chevrolet Volt at the Detroit Auto Show in January. And the show will bring a flood of other new battery vehicles. When Volt debuted in 2010, you could count the number of plug-based cars, trucks, and crossovers on one hand. Today, you wouldn’t have enough fingers and toes.

Despite the rapid increase in the number of green machines, however, U.S. sales have been lagging expectations. It hasn’t helped that fuel prices have fallen to four-year lows. As analyst Stephanie Brinley of IHS Automotive points out, “Americans have short memories” and tend to base their buying decisions on the facts of the moment. But few expect the current fuel price reprieve to last for long, and smart shoppers — especially real estate professionals and others who spend much of their time behind the wheel — need to factor that in.

The problem is that early plug-based vehicles typically carried a stiff premium. The Volt started out at $41,000, for example, but its price has been dropping regularly since 2010. The Ford Focus Electric, meanwhile, recently took a $6,000 price cut. In fact, almost all battery-based vehicles but the luxurious Tesla Model S have seen prices fall over the last several years, a trend likely to continue, says Mark Reuss, General Motors’ global product development director. “We have to get … costs down so it makes people willing to try” vehicles like the Volt, he concedes, adding that the industry must also address issues like range and charging times.

The good news is that battery technology is getting better, even as prices come down. Performance is improving, too. For those who equate battery power with slow and sluggish, the latest version of Tesla’s Model S will deliver a shock: It goes from 0 to 60 about as quickly as a McLaren P1 supercar — in barely three seconds.

Battery power isn’t the only way to go green. Last autumn, the Dodge Ram 1500 EcoDiesel was named Green Truck of the Year by Green Car Journal. The number of diesels on the road has also grown rapidly, and so-called “oil burners” were expected to generate more sales than all battery-based vehicles combined by the end of 2014.

If you haven’t driven a diesel lately, you could be in for an awakening. Unlike the slow, noisy, and smelly products of the ’80s, today’s diesels are quick, quiet, and clean — while still delivering amazing mileage. The diesel versions of the new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon should top 30 mpg when GM brings them out in a year.

Green-minded motorists have another alternative to consider: hydrogen power. “We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel — just everything necessary to make them turn,” explains Bob Carter, a senior vice president with Toyota, which will launch its new Mirai in the months ahead. Hyundai brought out its Tucson Fuel-Cell SUV last summer, and Honda will launch its version by 2016. The problem is that there are currently just a handful of hydrogen pumps in the United States, so sales initially will be limited to Southern California.

Even if you don’t want something quite so exotic, conventional gasoline vehicles are becoming surprisingly clean and fuel-efficient, thanks to technologies like direct injection and turbocharging. Even the 450-hp Chevrolet Corvette Stingray now gets 30 mpg on the highway. So, the good news is that the latest crop of cars, trucks, and crossovers will prove more affordable than ever, even when fuel prices start climbing again.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.