The Los Angeles Auto Show: TreeHugger Test-Drives the Newest Hybrid and Electric Cars

© RCruger - The zippy new electric Mitsubishi i in raspberry.

Through November 27, shiny displays of turbo-powered Mustangs, glitzy Jaguars and cute cars like the Mini-Cooper roadster, fill the showroom floor at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

But with most automakers manufacturing some kind of green car nowadays, vehicles with electrification increased by 25 percent and cars with 40-plus mpg have doubled.

Almost 20 eco-friendly vehicles were available for test drives around downtown streets for the show, and I had a chance to check out 10 of them: the Mitsubishi i, the CODA, Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Honda Natural Gas Civic, Toyota Prius V Hybrid, Lexus Hybrid CT 200h, Hyundai Tuscon Hydrogen Cell, Volkswagen Passat TDI, and the Ford Focus Electric.

In comparing the range of styles, sizes, practicalities and prices, from electric to hydrogen fuel cell, it’s clear there will soon be something for everybody. There is a $7,500 Federal rebate for low-emission vehicles, plus states have incentives (i.e.: $1,500 in California) to offset cost. Here are the highlights:

Mitsubishi i

I was lucky enough to get to drive the jellybean-shaped “i” for a few hours the day before the show. Since electric vehicles have great torque, it was zippy in street traffic (even in “eco” mode for best energy consumption), zoomy on freeways in “drive” mode, and in “b” mode (brake regenerative) headed downhill smoothly and gave the brakes a break.

The quiet was calming, parking was easy, the dashboard instrument panel isn't digital—nice when dealing with new technology--and it's comfy. A free recharging unit was within a couple miles at a parking garage, though the local grocery store's units were outmoded, but even after 30 miles, plenty of juice remained. Considered a secondary vehicle, it’s the most affordable of the electrics.

Driving range: 62 miles (45-80 city driving)
Recharging: 30 minutes with Level 3 quick charge, 6-7-1/2 hours (240 volt outlet) and 22 hours (120 volt)
Availability: pre-orders for delivery starting in December in Hawaii, the West Coast in January, then the Northeast
Cost: from $21,625 to $29,125 (before rebates)

CODA

© RCruger - The CODA on the floor of the 2012 LA Auto Show.

This electric 4-door sedan looks sensible, roomy, safe and kid-seat-friendly. Referred to as spartan, the simplicity is appealing. Its understated appearance may be less dazzling than the “look-at-me” aesthetic of other models but belies the innovative technology and bigger battery (with a 10-year warranty) that recharges faster than rivals.

It shot through traffic quickly with normal handling, delivers the longest range of electric cars and features a decent size trunk instead of a hatchback. Since there's no transmission, the “gear” shift is just an easily turned knob.

Driving range: 150 miles
Recharging: six hours for a full charge
Availability: a $99 reservation fee claims a spot when vehicles become available after April next year.
Cost: $39,900 before rebates (comparable to the Ford Focus Electric also a mid-size sedan)

Nissan Leaf

© RCruger - Nissan Leaf: World Car of the Year 2011.

The drive feels like it looks—whooshy and stylish. Nissan is a pioneer that remains ahead of the pack in the electric car market, and it shows: The current model is sold-out and the 2012 SL model is taking online pre-orders now. It will include added features based on customer feedback, such as a battery warming package as standard equipment, solar and fog lights.

There will be level one, two and three (quick) charges and planned public stations. The interesting "gear shift" is basically a joystick type-knob.

Driving range: 73 to 100 miles (depending on types of driving, weather, a/c, weight and other variables)
Recharging: 8 hours from zero to full
Availability: Pre-orders for 2012 SL
Cost: $35,200 to $37,250 and will increase for the 2012 SL model (before rebates)

Chevrolet Volt

© RCruger - Chevrolet Volt, the first plug-in, relieves range anxiety.

The Chevrolet Volt is a game-changer with its extended range, and has an advantage as a primary vehicle. It can be driven solely electric if you stay within 35 miles so it’s ideal for commuters. (Jay Leno claims to have driven 10,000 miles with one tank of gas.) It’s handsome and feels pretty lux.

In 2012 it qualifies for California's HOV lane stickers for “advanced technology, partial zero-emissions vehicles.” The front seat is spacious but the back seat seems a bit cozy. An interesting addition this year is the Volt "chirp" warning sound for pedestrians as well as the piped-in sound of a conventional car starting instead of just a ready light. This year the Volt expands to all 50 states.

Driving range: 35 miles electric, then gas generates the battery for 375 miles
Recharging: 4 hours with 240-volt; 10 hours with 110-volt
Availability: In California and Texas dealerships now (rolling out to all 50 states on pre-order)
Cost: $39,145 (before rebates)

Also in 2013, the new small Chevy Spark, will mark GM's return to an all-electric model.

Honda Natural Gas Civic

Honda’s Natural Gas Civic won Green Car of the Year, which I wrote about last week.

It rides just like my Civic Hybrid. Honda’s full-complement of vehicles also includes the Insight Hybrid and upcoming FCX Clarity, a hydrogen powered vehicle getting 60 mpg.

Driving range: 240 miles
Availability: in stock now (at dealers with certified CNG mechanics)
Cost: starts at $26,155 (before rebates)

But that's not all for Honda: In the summer of 2012, Fit EV, an electric vehicle will be available by registering online for a 3-year lease at $399/month. Its driving range is between 76 and 123 miles. And in 2013, a plug-in version will debut.

Toyota Prius V Hybrid

Basically a station wagon version of the Prius, the Toyota Prius V is designed to answer the request for more cargo space. It's a departure from the iconic style, and along with the C compact version should appeal to more buyers.

It was too big for me but as the latest "mom" model in the Prius family, I could imagine kids in the back seat.

Availability: as of November 2011
Cost: $26,000 to $29,990 (before rebates)

A plug-in Toyota is coming in February 2012 for $32,000 with a 15-mile range on electric, as well as the all-electric RAV in association with Tesla.

Lexus Hybrid CT 200h

© RCruger -The compact touring version of Lexus' hybrids.

In the eco-luxury class, I tried the surprisingly reasonably-priced Lexus Hybrid CT 200h which offers a sophisticated package with lots of bells and whistles, like a clever mouse on the console to handle the navigation screen.

It uses Prius technology with its touch-sensitive gear shift for 42 mpg combined streets/freeway, and features a super-eco coasting mode and "sporty" driving mode, which fits this snazzy yet sporty sedan for adults, as opposed to the Jetson’s-like Mitsubishi i, targeting young professionals.

Availability: in stock as of November 2011
Cost: starting at $29,995 (before rebates)

Hyundai Tuscon Hydrogen Cell

© RCruger - Hyundai Tuscon Hydrogen Cell ready for a ride in downtown LA.

I skipped the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell but took the Hyundai Tuscon Hydrogen Cell for a spin.

Though I don’t like driving SUVs, the zero emissions is an eco-choice for trucks, which apparently sell at a rate of 350 per day in the US. In Nordic countries, 1000 hydrogen-powered Tuscons are in use and may be a smarter than electric option in cold climates without the loss of battery life. Hyundai also offers four models with an impressive 40 mpg (with fossil fuel), better than some hybrids.

Driving range: 230 per fueling; 403 miles with third generation version
Availability: concept vehicle planned for market in 2015

Volkswagen Passat TDI

© RCruger - VW's greenest choice is diesel until its hybrids rollout.

VW's Passat TDI was a nominee for Green Car of the Year and was just voted Motor Trend magazine’s car of the year.

Engineered in Germany and built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, it runs on "clean" diesel fuel. This mid-size sedan felt the most responsive, with strong torque and an average of 34 mph combined street/freeway driving.

Availability: in dealerships now but could be a hot seller
Cost: starts at $19,995 and up to $32,950

Ford Focus Electric

© RCruger - One of Ford's variety of growing green options.

Ford’s Focus Electric was on display in the showroom floor but not available for a drive. I’d previously driven its Fusion Hybrid, managing to beat the official average of 41 mpg with an impressive score of 47 mpg combined.

Driving range:73 miles
Recharging: 3 hours with 240-volt
Availability: delivery March 2012 in California and New York; expands to 15 more states
Cost: $39,995 (before rebates)

The Detroit car-maker has a range of eco-minded vehicles, including a people mover, and won Nielson Automotive Green Marketer of the Year for its efforts at informing the public.

Green cars are intended for early adopters, but as the infrastructure grows, re-fueling should make these cars easier on the road without nervousness about running out of energy. Battery EVs are expected to more than double in sales next year from 12,500 to 27,000 sold and hybrids/plug-in hybrids will increase to 498,000 - though still only 10 percent of total sales by 2020.

More on Electric Vehicles
Electric Vehicles Bring Us Closer to Freedom From Oil
Could Electric Cars' Range Be their Biggest Benefit?
Why Electric Cars Have No "Gasoline Equivalent"

Tags: Alternative Fuels | Electric Cars | Hybrid Cars | Los Angeles | Transportation

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