Every year since 1964, a group of journalists working at respected European automobile magazines gather to test and assess new cars. Through a process that includes successive filtering and elimination, cars are awarded points according to certain criteria that are deemed important to the consumer. Several finalists are then tested extensively, and this somewhat subjective procedure results in the award of the ‘Car of The Year’ designation to the winning car.
While it would seem exaggerated to base a purchasing decision solely on the opinion of a group of journalists – again, all of them work in famous car magazines – the lucky winner gets a ‘Car of The Year’ sticker on each produced car, and this does help it sell due to the annual award having a certain credibility, particularly in the European continent. This year, the plug-in hybrid twins Chevrolet Volt/Opel Ampera have just been honored, in time to coincide with the Geneva motor show. Last year, the electric Nissan Leaf has been crowned, while the 2nd-generation Toyota Prius – a ‘full’ hybrid – won the award back in 2005.
So what is happening? Should we all rush to buy and drive electric cars now?
As a tech geek, car enthusiast and supporter of Green Buildings and sustainability, I find intriguing the back-to-back awards given to cars running (fully or partially) on electricity. What are the technologies currently in use, and how do these cars address your needs as a driver/consumer?
What you first ought to know is that the three cars that have won the ‘Car of The Year’ awards are different in their approach. Here’s how.
2012 Winner – Chevrolet Volt/Opel Ampera
The two cars are twins because the same group, General Motors, produces them. In Europe, the Opel Ampera will be sold instead of the Chevrolet Volt. The car is a plug-in hybrid, meaning that it has a lithium-ion battery that can be charged using a residential electric outlet. The car can then operate in a fully electric mode – it does not emit gases, since no gasoline or diesel engine is operational at that time – for 60 km, where a gasoline engine takes over due to the battery reaching a threshold of discharge. This is to palliate for the absence of a charging point in trips longer than 60km, which is its range. The battery can be charged in 10 to 12 hours using a 120 V outlet, and 3 hours using a 240V outlet.
2011 Winner – Nissan Leaf
The Nissan Leaf is a fully electric car: it has no gasoline engine. As such, it’s a silent car that does not pollute the air. It has a range of 117 km (US cycle) or 175 km (European cycle). Its lithium-ion battery can be charged from empty in 8 hours from a charging station (220/240V) or, using another recharging inlet that can be connected to a household socket, gain 8km of range per hour of recharge. A fast-charging station developed by the manufacturer can charge the battery to 80% capacity in three hours.
2005 Winner – Toyota Prius
The Prius, a gas-electric hybrid, was in its second iteration when it won the coveted award; the third-generation Prius is currently on sale, and it is also offered as a plug-in hybrid like the Chevrolet Volt in some markets. The Prius was first produced in 1997, and each generation brought about a host of refinements. Its basic premise is that, as long as the battery is full, you can drive in a fully electric – read: silent and emissions-free – mode. When the nickel metal hydride battery is empty, the gasoline engine takes over and charges the battery as well.
Addressing the three tenets of Sustainability
How do the cars mentioned respect the triple bottom line? You might recall our discussion of the three basic tenets of Sustainability in our discussion of Green Buildings.
- Planet: Fossil fuel (petrol) is finite: it will definitely dry up one day. Those three cars consume less fuel – one of them, not at all – and this is definitely a step in the right direction, provided a lot of electric/hybrid cars are sold and driven (major obstacles remain in face of that condition, as we shall see below). Less pollution is also welcome!
- People: Such cars are more silent than conventional gasoline-powered cars, and pollute much less. A silent car is a comfortable car, while a lot of people might appreciate a lack of driver involvement and exhaust sound – car enthusiasts will not, however!
- Profit: Here’s the real disadvantage of this type of cars. They are expensive to buy wherever they are offered, due to the expensive technology employed. In some countries, government incentives – such as tax refunds – exist to encourage consumers to buy ‘Green’ vehicles such as these. But the fact remains that the price difference relative to buying a conventional car takes a lot of time to be recovered – the payback period is still long (sometimes extending to many years). You have to be really committed to the environment to justify buying an electric/hybrid car.
And what about the famous range-anxiety? You go on a trip, and there’s no charging station on your chosen route (a problem particularly acute with the Nissan Leaf). As long as your trips are short, that should not be a problem. But isn’t that a way to limit your freedom – and a car is the symbol of freedom par excellence!
The final tally
Car magazines are giving awards to cars that use an alternative mode of energy and reduce emissions:
- In order to give a tribute to manufacturers who possess the advanced technology to produce them;
- To encourage the public to consider them as a future purchase.
And if you are a car nut and fear that electric/hybrid vehicles will suck the fun out of driving, consider this list by the amazing tech site The Register. The ‘fun’ cars are still hideously expensive, but there’s hope. Gasoline won’t be available forever, unfortunately.
Questions? Opinions? Sound off in the comments!