Electric car owners say new electric vehicles exceed expectations

Since Jim Stack bought his new Nissan six months ago, he’s come to enjoy watching fuel prices bounce around. Stack and his wife have racked up more than 4,000 miles while only powering their electric car Nissan Leaf by plugging it into a socket. “We haven’t been to a gas station since March,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

As the experimental Leaf electric vehicles endured their first Valley summer, Stack and other owners said the lithium ion batteries and air-conditioners held up well. And the vehicles have proved to be conversation starters in parking lots as other drivers ask what the cars are like. The electric cars drive mostly like a normal vehicle, except they accelerate faster and are quieter. “It exceeds anything I could have managed,” Stack said.

The Phoenix-Tucson area is one of five metropolitan areas where the Leaf was made available this spring. It and the new Chevrolet Volt hybrid have scored high marks in their first few months, said Bill Sheaffer, executive director of the Valley of the Sun Clean Cities Coalition.

There were concerns “range anxiety” would be an obstacle, but that hasn’t played out, Sheaffer said. Electric car owners have quickly learned how far they can travel on each charge and they’ve adjusted their travel patterns.

“The people are very pleased about not having to go to the gas station anymore,” Sheaffer said. “The users universally seem extremely pleased.”

One disappointment is the vehicles are arriving more slowly than anticipated when they debuted in the spring. Also, it’s taking longer than expected to install public charging stations because of the time required to find locations and sign contracts at roughly 900 locations. The stations are supposed to be in place by year’s end.

“I’m going to guess we’re probably six months behind that curve, but what we have seems to be adequate,” he said.

Phoenix and Tucson are among 18 U.S. cities where San Francisco-based ECOtality Inc. is installing residential and public chargers to encourage electric vehicles. The company has roughly $115 million in U.S. Department of Energy grants for the project.

The placement of chargers was based on who is expected to buy electric vehicles and where they live, said Marc Sobelman, ECOtality’s area manager for Arizona. About 75 percent of the public chargers are in place so far. So far, the most popular site is at Monti’s La Casa Vieja in downtown Tempe.

The majority of chargers take five to six hours to fully energize a vehicle. But by the end of the year, a small number of commercial units will be in place to charge vehicles halfway in just 30 minutes. Also, four of those quick-charge units will be placed about every 35 miles between Phoenix and Tucson on Interstate 10. The fast chargers will make electric vehicles more practical to a wider range of drivers, Sobelman said.

“That’s really going to be a game changer because those are going to be destinations for charging,” Sobelman said.

The initial buyers of electric vehicles tend to have solar panels on their homes and drive the hybrid Toyota Prius, Sheaffer said. But the vehicles are appealing to more than just environmentally minded activists, he said.

Big corporations like Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay are planning to buy more than 2 million electric cars, vans and even medium-duty trucks in the next decade, Sheaffer said. The companies have found many delivery routes are within the limited range of electric vehicles. The companies may have some altruistic motive, he said, but they’re figuring the fuel savings will save them money.

Sheaffer sees more momentum behind the current push for electric vehicles than the EV1 that General Motors launched as the first all-electric car in 1996. The Valley was also a testing base for that car, which GM scrapped in 2002.

“I think everybody waded into this up to their ankles at first, but it seems to be very positive,” he said.

Larry H. Miller Nissan in Mesa has sold every Leaf that Nissan has allocated, said Jason Doherty, the dealer’s Internet and fleet director. Of the 18 sold, two were to buyers who became interested after a co-worker bought one, he said.

The Leaf can handle most daily commutes, he said. “It is designed to be your second car, your commuter vehicle, where you would have some other source of transportation for a weekend trip,” Doherty said.

Stack and his wife have used the Leaf so much that he disconnected the battery from his other vehicle, a Prius. The Chandler resident said he’s gone 130 miles between charging with no problems. He paid $33,000, but will get a $7,500 tax rebate. He figures the Leaf will pay for itself in six years.

Leaf owner Joseph Magers bought the electric after owning one of the most notorious gas-guzzlers ever made, a Hummer H2. The Mesa resident’s gas bill had been as high as $400 a month.

But he’s keeping the Hummer because some trips require a bigger vehicle or a longer range than the Leaf. Magers said he’s had to stop and recharge on several trips, which has been a minor inconvenience. But he also enjoys scouting out new charging locations and figures he’s been the first to use several of them.

Still, he’d like the Leaf to have a longer range. “That’s the limiting factor right now,” he said. “You’re pretty much restricted to the small geographical area where you’re at. There’s no way for me to make it Tucson at this point.”

Garin Groff, www.eastvalleytribune.com/