YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Plug-ins feel like the future, not the present

Still, some are better than others. Here is how a Ford, a Honda and a Chevy stack up.

November 02, 2013|Brian Thevenot
  • The Ford Fusion Energi distinguishes itself in build quality and fit and finish. Too bad it seems to lag behind its EPA efficiency claims in real-world driving.
The Ford Fusion Energi distinguishes itself in build quality and fit and… (Ford )

The Honda Accord covered my 11-mile morning commute to downtown Los Angeles, downhill on the 110 Freeway, without burning a single drop of gas. In the evening, I made it halfway back before the gasoline engine tapped the tank.

In all, the plug-in hybrid version of one of America's favorite sedans netted almost immeasurably high mileage for a large and surprisingly powerful car.

The trade-off? A $40,570 price tag -- about $10,000 more than loaded gasoline-powered models -- and a trunk that's been cut in half to make room for the big battery.

Today's plug-in hybrids may make little economic or practical sense for most drivers. But testing three leaders in the emerging segment -- the Accord, the Ford Fusion Energi and the Chevrolet Volt -- felt like a glimpse into the future of driving.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, November 05, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Hybrid vehicles: An article in the Nov. 2 Business section about plug-in hybrid cars said Ford had revised the fuel economy ratings of its Fusion hybrid and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid sedans, from 47 miles per gallon to 43 mpg. Ford revised the rating only of its C-Max hybrid; ratings for the Fusion sedans have not changed. The Fusion hybrid is rated at 47 mpg; the Fusion Energi is rated at 43 mpg.

For now, automakers are rolling out many competing technologies to save fuel: diesels, hybrids, battery electrics, fuel cells, turbos, hydrogen and more. But none of these technologies alone will win the fuel economy wars; rather, they will converge.

Plug-in hybrids are the first phase of that convergence. Like conventional hybrids, they have gasoline engines that work in unison with an electric motor and a battery. The battery draws its power from the gasoline engine and regenerative braking systems, which capture energy from friction.

But unlike conventional hybrids, the bigger (and way more expensive) batteries in plug-in hybrids are rechargeable -- like those in fully electric cars. So the battery provides enough power to drive the car without gas for a limited distance. When that charge runs out, the gasoline and electric motors work together, as in any hybrid.

The goal is to merge gasoline and electric power to eliminate the downside of each. Gasoline engines require $4-a-gallon fuel and pollute the air. Electric cars have short driving ranges and long recharging times. But in combination, you get unlimited range and extremely high efficiency, particularly for drivers with reasonable commutes.

In our testing, the Chevrolet Volt immediately emerged as the efficiency champ, with an electric-only range of about 38 miles, triple the range offered by the Accord and nearly double that of the Fusion. The Volt also costs less, with a base price of $34,995 for 2014 models. (Chevrolet recently dropped the price by $5,000 to spur sales.)

But the contest for best car to drive narrowed quickly to the Honda and the Ford. The Volt feels cheap by comparison, with a relatively cramped interior covered in shiny plastic more suited to an economy car. The Honda and the Ford each combine high efficiency and high-end fit and finish.

Here's how they did in our testing:

Chevrolet Volt

To many observers, General Motors defined the emerging plug-in hybrid segment with the Volt. But the automaker says the Volt is no mere hybrid.

Although it combines gasoline and electric power, GM calls the Volt an "extended-range electric vehicle." GM originally intended to build the Volt as an all-electric car, but practical concerns won out, and the automaker installed a 1.4-liter gasoline engine to assuage buyer concerns about range.

But the Volt's electric-only range blows away the Ford's and the Honda's. And those 38 miles are pleasant, for the most part, behind the wheel. The Volt has decent power and a silent, stable ride. Its 149 horsepower is substantially less than the other two competitors here, but plenty for most drivers.

The Volt feels less impressive after the charge runs out and the gasoline "range extender" kicks in. With the engine running, the Volt got 35 miles per gallon in our testing, a touch below its Environmental Protection Agency rating of 37 mpg in combined city and highway driving. That's decent, but it's nothing some gas-only economy cars can't pull off.

While most hybrids employ a relatively seamless mix of gas-and-electric power to the wheels, the Volt keeps the gas motor one step removed, like a generator. The engine isn't connected to the drivetrain; instead, it charges the battery, which powers an electric motor that turns the wheels.

The disconnect is apparent from the driver's seat. The engine doesn't always rev when you step on the accelerator. And it sometimes revs at a high idle even when the car is stopped.

The interior is another disappointment. The center console is a cheap, shiny piece of plastic with way too many tiny, touch-sensitive controls that aren't necessarily sensitive to the touch. Displays on the in-dash screen are garish and often less than intuitive. The cabin is a bit cramped because of the large T-shaped battery riding underneath, which limits available seats to four.

The battery placement also contributes to slab-sided exterior styling, with tall doors and small windows. The windows, when down, produced an annoying problem: unbearable wind noise, as if a helicopter were landing on the roof. In Southern California, that's a deal-breaker.

Los Angeles Times Articles