Sixth Annual Efficient Cars Roundup
2012 was the watershed year for hybrid and electric vehicle sales in the United States.
According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, sales of hybrids, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and pure battery electric vehicles (EVs) jumped 72 percent over sales in 2011, to 487,480 vehicles. Of those, 10.8 percent were plug-ins, either PHEVs or pure EVs. All together, these high-efficiency cars comprised 3.8 percent of the overall market for light vehicles (cars, pick-ups and SUVs).
At the same time, a number of business and policy developments make us optimistic that the trend is permanent. In June 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standard, which calls for manufacturers to meet a 34.1 mile-per-gallon (mpg) fleet average for the 2016 model year. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that for model year 2012, two car brands had achieved fleet averages of 30 mpg: Honda and Toyota. The average for all new cars sold in the United States edged up to 27.3 mpg, from 25.6 in 2011. About a dozen small-car models, driven by gasoline or turbo-diesel engines, now do better than 34 mpg. Hybrids typically get 50 mpg or better.
And at the close of March this year, Tesla, the start-up manufacturer of high-performance EVs, announced that it made a profit in the first quarter, on sales of 4,750 Model S sedans. That’s 250 more than forecast. The entire production run is pre-sold, the company said. At the same time, Tesla is selling drive-train components, and expertise, to Toyota (for the RAV4 EV) and Mercedes (for the 2014 B-Class E-Cell).
Overall prices for electric vehicles (EV) have come down sharply. Mercedes slashed the retail price of the Smart ED from $31,252 in 2011 to $25,000 for 2013. Nissan dropped the price of the Leaf from $32,700 to $28,800. Both Toyota and Honda introduced smaller new hybrids priced at about $19,000.
The chart presented here is compiled mainly from data published in the EPA report “Light- Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trend: 1975 Through 2012,” published in March. We’ve added data for some 2013 model-year cars. Missing are data for Kia and Hyundai. The EPA dropped them from the report because of an ongoing investigation into the CAFE data reported by those companies.
We’ve added manufacturers’ suggested retail prices and calculated a comparative cost-to-own figure for each of these 18 cars, presented as cost- per-mile for the first 100,000 miles. The price here is for the base model, with the leanest pack- age of options, and without sales tax, dealer fees or insurance. Nor does the price include federal or state rebates, tax credits or other incentives for electric-drive vehicles. The federal credit is currently $7,500, which means you can buy the cheapest EV (the Smart) for the equivalent of $18,325. Subtract state incentives ($6,000 in Colorado), and the cost of entry drops to $12,325. Now it’s beginning to look like a logical addition to a home solar array.
How To Read the Chart
The chart is arranged in order of cost to own with the cheapest first.
Power Source indicates whether the car runs purely on batteries (EV), is a hybrid (liquid-fuel engine combined with an electric motor) or plug-in hybrid (a hybrid with a larger battery pack that can be home-charged for extended range on batteries alone). CNG means com- pressed natural gas, which runs cleaner than gasoline when burned in a conventional piston engine — and currently costs less, too, about $2.20 per gallon.
Curb weight reflects the car’s general heft, in pounds. It’s what a car weighs with a full tank of gas but no passengers or luggage. Of course, a pure EV has no gas tank — instead, it has heavy batteries. In the past, we assumed that lower curb weight translated almost automatically into better fuel efficiency, but the weight of a battery pack can reverse that idea.
IC HP means horsepower of the internal combustion or fuel-powered engine, present in any hybrid or PHEV.
Electric HP means horsepower of the electric motor.
Battery kWh is the storage capacity of the battery pack, in kilowatt-hours (kWh). The larger this capacity, the longer the car’s electric range.
Electric Range is given in miles. This is the distance the car is said to travel on electric power alone, before any fuel-driven engine kicks in to drive the wheels or charge the batteries.
Total Range, in miles, is the total distance the car is said to travel before fully depleting the batteries or emptying the fuel tank.
EPA CO2 emissions is given in grams per mile. Note that for a pure EV, this is a range of numbers based on how the recharging electricity is generated. Coal-fired plants generate high grams-per-mile, hydroelectric plants generate low grams-per-mile. No car gets a zero-carbon rating because the EPA counts in the carbon footprint of manufacturing and shipping the vehicle. Note that an efficient fuel-driven hybrid may easily be cleaner than an EV powered by coal.
EPA Equivalent MPG calculates the car’s comparative fuel efficiency, considering that a gallon of gasoline contains the energy equivalent of 33.7 kWh and assuming that a PHEV depletes its battery before switching to liquid fuel.
MSRP is the manufacturer’s suggested retail price in dollars, for the base model, excluding taxes, tax credits, incentives, rebates, insurance and registration fees.
100k Cost per Mile is the cost to operate, given in cents per mile over the first 100,000 miles. This calculation assumes that gasoline sells for $3.50 per gallon, electricity for $0.11 per kilowatt-hour, and compressed natural gas for $2.20.
SOURCES EPA: “Light-Duty Automotive Technology,
Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 Through 2012,” epa.gov/oms/fetrends.htm
EPA: Best and Worst Cars for Fuel Economy, fueleconomy.gov/feg/best-worst.shtml
Electric Drive Transportation Association: Annual Sales, Electric-drive Vehicles, electricdrive.org/index.php?ht=d/sp/i/20952/pid/20952, or bit.ly/KweLla.
Seth Masia (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an editor of SOLAR TODAY and director of communications at the American Solar Energy Society.