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Prius Plug-In Promises Great Economy, No Range Anxiety

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Leaf’s Battery-Only Case So Weak, It Threatens Edsel-Like Debacle
Derision From Top Gear, Sunday Times Story Will Make Buyers Wary

“The Prius and the Volt don’t promise a perfect solution to the problems of emissions, but they provide a sensible, practical compromise”.

I’ve been driving the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, a new high-technology fuel-efficient car which will keep the number crunchers at the Nissan Renault alliance awake at night.

This new gasoline-electric Prius hybrid has a more powerful battery than the current model, allowing it to travel 12.5 miles on electricity alone. That’s up from about one mile now. That might not sound like much compared with battery-only cars like the Nissan of Japan’s Leaf claim of up to 100 miles. But it’s the lack of flexibility offered by battery-only cars like the already on sale Leaf and its Renault of France affiliate’s cars like the Zoe, on sale in Europe next year, which is raising eyebrows. The Zoe will account for 150,000 of the 250,000 EVs Renault aims to produce annually by 2013. The Renault-Nissan alliance expects to have an annual EV capacity of 500,000 in a few years.

The BBC’s Top Gear motoring program ridiculed the Leaf and a Mitsubishi electric car in a program last weekend. The show’s presenters set off on a journey to the seaside, and had to wait on the way for 11 hours for the cars to be recharged.  Britain’s Sunday Times ran a story about the Leaf the previous week underlining the range anxiety effect, and how its reporter was forced to turn off things like air conditioning and demisting in order to struggle home. In other words, battery car drivers will feel the need even to turn off safety systems to eke out enough power to get home.

That’s what makes the Nissan-Renault alliance’s decision to go for battery-only cars so hard to understand. The Chevrolet Volt and its European equivalent the Vauxhall-Opel Ampera using the extended range electric vehicle concept has a battery-only range of perhaps 40 miles, but can then switch to a gasoline engine to drive the car up to more than 300 miles.

The Prius plug-in can achieve 108.6 mpg, according to European Union figures. And although when the gasoline engine is engaged it is far from the zero emissions claimed by Nissan for the Leaf, it will probably never strand you miles from home. Once the battery power has been used up, the car performs like a regular hybrid, with the electric power being used to back up the performance of the gasoline engine, and storing power when the car is freewheeling. A full lithium-ion battery recharge takes about 90 minutes from a standard home socket, or a roadside charging point. The Prius plug-in is expected to go on sale next year. No word yet on price.

The point about the Prius and the Volt is that they don’t promise a perfect solution to the problems of emissions, but they provide a sensible, practical compromise. They aren’t cheap, but if you had to choose between one of these and a battery-only vehicle, the decision, as they say, is a no brainer. If battery-only could offer twice the range or half the price, it might attract buyers. Without drastic improvement in these parameters, it is hard to see any future at all for your Leafs and Zoes. Shades of the Edsel perhaps? That was a gigantic misstep by Ford in the late 50s which almost destroyed the company.

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