Choosing the right electric car: Why I won't buy a Tesla

After years of standing on the sidelines, conventional auto companies are finally getting their electric act together. And just in time.

A battery electric vehicle (BEV) seems like the sadly perfect choice for our current dystopia. Worried about climate change? Electric vehicles dramatically reduce carbon emissions, compared to internal combustion vehicles. Pandemic got you afraid to travel? Road trips are much more appealing these days, especially when compared to the thought of spending hours in close quarters with other people on an airplane.

And, thankfully, Tesla’s no longer the only game in town.

My wife and I are not excited by Tesla’s products, to be honest. The widely reported quality problems have turned us off, and our test drives left us impressed by the driving experience and technology but underwhelmed by the interior.

In our research, we’ve found some exciting Tesla alternatives available from more experienced auto manufacturers these days, including Ford’s Mustang Mach-E and Volvo’s XC40, crossover SUVs that are just about to hit the market and that are much more appealing (and less expensive) than the Tesla Model Y. The price difference is even more noticeable given that both of the new models qualify for a $7500 Federal tax credit that has expired for Tesla buyers. (And from a technology point of view, the Volvo is especially interesting, given that its dashboard is one of the first to be powered by Android Auto .)

So, a BEV is an easy choice over a similar automobile powered by an internal combustion engine, right?

Well, not exactly. At least, the choice isn’t so easy when you live, as I do, in the great American Southwest.

Even the most capable BEV has a maximum range of about 400 miles before needing a recharge. The average (mean) range for BEVs currently available in the United States is about 250 miles. If your itinerary covers more miles than your vehicle’s maximum range, you’ve got to deal with a phenomenon called range anxiety.

From our home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it’s a long drive to just about any other destination. The nearest big city, Denver, is 400 miles away. It’s a 500-mile drive to Phoenix, Arizona. The straightest route to Dallas, Texas, is over 640 miles, and it’s almost 700 miles to Austin.

A trip to visit my family in Northern California means 1100-plus miles behind the wheel, following the old Route 66 (now Interstate 40) for the first half of the drive. And the charging options along that highway aren’t exactly plentiful, which adds not just range anxiety but “Will the charging station be open and working?” anxiety.

Get off the main roads, and the options become even more limited. From our home, it’s about a five-hour drive to Telluride, covering 280 miles, which is right at the edge of range anxiety for the BEVs we’ve been looking at. And the only charging options on the scenic but sparsely populated backroads between here and there are in the less-than-charming town of Farmington. (No offense, Farmington.)

If we lived in California or in the Northeastern United States, this might not be such a big deal. But in the Southwest, wide open spaces are an inescapable fact.

Does that mean we are stuck with a gas-guzzling, CO2-emitting internal combustion engine? Not necessarily. It turns out there’s a third option that offers the best of both worlds: a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, or PHEV. Unlike the once-popular gas-electric hybrids pioneered by the Toyota Prius, plug-in hybrids have an internal combustion motor and an electric propulsion system, so you can switch to all-electric driving for short trips. It’s a combination that fits our pandemic-altered lifestyle perfectly.

If you’re confused by the difference between a PHEV and conventional hybrid, Car & Driver has a good explainer. The short version: A conventional hybrid uses its gasoline engine to keep a relative small battery charged as you drive, resulting in significantly better mileage than an equivalent internal combustion model. By contrast, a PHEV can be plugged in to recharge that battery and can be driven in pure electric mode, without using the internal combustion engine at all.

PHEVs have much smaller batteries than BEVs, with a correspondingly lower (typically much lower)  range when driving in all-electric mode. Among vehicles currently sold in the U.S., the average range is 21.5 miles. If you exceed that range, your car doesn’t stop; it just switches to the internal combustion engine.

For someone who commutes 10 miles each way or whose driving consists mostly of local errands, a PHEV is a perfect daily driver. It stays in pure electric mode for most trips around town, and you can recharge it in your garage in a few hours or overnight. You can double that commute range if your employer is enlightened enough to offer charging stations where employees can plug in while at work. In theory, if you never go on long road trips, you could get by with one or two trips to the gas station a year.

And for road trips, there’s no such thing as range anxiety, because you’ll be able to use the conventional engine to get from Point A to Point B, stopping at gas stations as required.

It’s not as clean a solution as the BEV, but we calculate that our driving habits will allow us to convert about 80% of our annual miles to pure electric mode, with our charging being accomplished from a solar array that’s also carbon-free. That’s a pretty dramatic shift, even if it’s not quite the zero-emissions strategy we’d really like to see.

The biggest barrier to wider adoption of PHEVs is confusion in the marketplace, because people understandably confuse them with conventional hybrids and don’t realize that they can run in pure electric mode.

PHEVs qualify for a Federal tax credit from the same program as BEVs, although for some models the tax credit is slightly less than what’s offered for a BEV. It still does a good job of equalizing the difference between the higher cost of an electric vehicle and its internal combustion alternative.

We narrowed the field to three PHEVs.

2018-honda-clarity-phev1.jpg

2020 Honda Clarity PHEV

Image: Honda

Honda Clarity PHEV (starting price $33,400): In the CNET review of the 2019 model, they called it “humble” with a “weird design.” They’re not wrong. But the 47-mile all-electric range is by far the best in its class and the owners I’ve talked to absolutely love it. The sedan form factor might be a little too small, though, and at 103 hp it’s not quite zippy enough for our needs.

Ford Escape (starting price $33,040): We owned a 2016 Escape for three years and had no complaints about the ride, the interior, or the technology. (Ford’s Sync 3 is the gold standard for touchscreens right now.)  CNET compared it favorably to other SUVs in its class, but noted that it’s not available with all-wheel drive. That’s a dealbreaker for us.

Volvo XC60 T8 (starting price $53,500): That’s a very big jump in price, but it’s also a huge leap in comfort, going from a midrange vehicle to a true luxury car. And when compared to that class, it’s almost a bargain, coming in at least $10,000 below the price of a comparable BMW X5 PHEV. (CNET reviewed the 2020 Polestar engineered model, which starts at $70,145 for the 2021 PHEV and is waaaay out of our price range. But boy, would that one be fun to drive.) With 400 hp, it’s also capable of that breathtaking acceleration that makes electric vehicles so much fun to drive, so this is likely to be our final choice.

The automotive industry is typically slow-moving, with long design cycles. So a lot of the electrification efforts that traditional automakers have been investing in are just now beginning to pay off, and I expect to see a dramatic increase in availability of BEV models over the next three to five years, along with (fingers crossed) some equally big increases in average range and more widely available charging networks.

Given that scenario, it’s likely that this PHEV will be a transitional vehicle for us. In three years, maybe the BEV of our dreams will be available.

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