Gas-sipping electrics now ‘fun to drive,’ automakers say
NEW YORK — When Toyota aired a Super Bowl television ad featuring a surprisingly quick Prius gas-electric hybrid eluding police, it marked a turning point for the auto industry.
For years, automakers pushed fuel efficiency to sell hybrid and electric vehicles. Now, in an era of cheap gasoline, the message is: These cars are faster and quieter than their gas-powered counterparts. And, yes, you still save on fuel.
“They’ve graduated out of the class of something that’s a bit of an oddity to drive,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of product planning for Hyundai. “It’s all about making these cars better.”
Until now, hybrids and electrics have largely appealed to the environmentally-conscious crowd. The vehicles cost thousands of dollars extra, and although drivers eventually recouped their money in fuel savings, the vehicles lacked the power and handling of gas-powered rivals. Electrics also suffered from driver concern that the battery could run out of juice on a trip.
Now, the tide is slowly turning. General Motors and Tesla will bring electric vehicles to market next year priced around $30,000, including a $7,500 federal tax credit. Battery range has improved
significantly, experts expect gasoline prices to eventually climb higher, and the advent of autonomous vehicles favors motors powered by electricity over gas.
At the New York International Auto Show on Wednesday, Hyundai and Toyota showed off new electric and hybrid vehicles, with presenters from both companies touting them as “fun to drive.” Hyundai unveiled battery, gas-electric hybrid and plug-in versions of a new car called the Ioniq, while Toyota showed the plug-in Prius Prime, which can go 22 miles on electricity before the gas-electric power system kicks in. The electric range is double the old version.
The Prius hybrid, powered by gas and electric motors, started the alternative fuel movement in the US in 2000. Toyota deliberately made it look different than other cars, knowing that buyers wanted to make a statement about being environmentally friendly. Other companies set their green cars apart as well.
Electric vehicles have few moving parts. “They require far less service,” Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said Wednesday. “No oil changes, and they are extremely reliable.”
As a power source, electricity outpaces gasoline in just about every area, says Karl Brauer, senior auto analyst for Kelley Blue Book. Advancements have made batteries smaller, increased their storage capacity and brought prices down. Electric motors can take off faster than gas engines, and hybrids can power wheels with both electric and gas motors for better acceleration. Electrics also are far quieter.
The coming debuts of the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3, which will have 200 miles of electric range, should make battery electric vehicles more appealing, even with cheap gas, Brauer said. A lack of charging stations, once thought to limit adoption of electrics, becomes almost moot because of the longer range, he said.
Self-driving cars, which would use electric motors that can be recharged without humans, also would boost sales.
Brauer thinks electrics and hybrids will make up more than half of US sales in the next 12 years as SUVs and trucks get the new systems. Hyundai’s O’Brien thinks the shift will happen sooner.
The 2017 Hyundai Ioniq electric vehicle on display at last month’s New York International Auto Show. .
NEW ELECTRICS. Top photo: 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Center photo: 2017 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine and an electric motor at each axle. Above photo: Designed to transport two people over short distances, Nissan’s Micro Mobility Concept vehicle runs on batteries that can be recharged in four hours and the range is up to 100 kilometers.