The first man to break the sound barrier, General Chuck Yeager, is 96 years old and very active on Twitter.
That last may surprise you, but the General is a wonderful palate-cleanser to the sea of misinformation and uninformed opinion you find on the internet.
His preferred phrase? When asked what his favourite aircraft is, he always bluntly answers: “Depends on the mission.”
Get on the internet to ask what’s the best green car for your needs, and some stranger with a Tesla symbol as their avatar is going to insist that buying anything other than a Model 3 is a huge mistake. Immediately after that, three people will post rebuttals, with articles shrieking that all EVs are built by exploited babies in far-off lands. You’re going to hear a lot of nonsense from all sides.
So, cut through the noise with Yeager’s maxim. What’s the best car to reduce your carbon footprint and ease your fuel bill? That, too, depends on the mission.
First, and easiest, there’s the choice of switching to a car with a conventional hybrid powertrain. Vancouverites can take a bit of pride in our little footnote in hybrid history, as the first Prius taxi went into service here years ago.
First, the bad news. All the energy that moves a conventional hybrid around comes from fossil fuels. You put gas in the tank, and an internal combustion engine burns it, creating forward momentum, yet also greenhouse gases.
Where the hybrid shines is in taking that precious momentum, and conserving it. Instead of standard steel brakes, which convert inertia into heat, the regenerative brakes of something like a Prius work like miniature generators. Energy is sucked back up and used to charge an onboard battery pack.
Next, that battery pack discharges its energy into an electric motor, to help get you going again. A hybrid doesn’t stop you burning fuel, but it does make sure you don’t waste a drop of it.
Besides increased fuel efficiency, a conventional hybrid has a couple of advantages. Those regenerative brakes need less servicing, as they’re not burning up brake pads. As the battery packs are smaller than in a full electric vehicle, the environmental cost of manufacturing a hybrid is lessened – and so is the price tag.
And, lastly, you don’t really need to change much about your driving habits to own a hybrid. You can store them outside, don’t need to plug them in, and never need to worry about running out of electricity. Note, however, that a hybrid works best in stop-and-go traffic. City fuel economy is often better than highway, where those regenerative brakes aren’t doing much.
While the odd-looking Prius led the way, there are now conventional hybrids from many manufacturers, and all of them represent fuel savings over a normal car. However, why pay for fuel at all?
Electric vehicle (EV)
The joy of not having to make any trips to the gas station is the argument made by most electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts. In the Lower Mainland, where commute distances are relatively short, a plug-in car might work for you. Most models offer more than 200 kilometres of range, with mid-level mainstream EVs offering up to nearly 400 km of range. That’s more than enough for most consumers.
Besides ignoring fluctuating fuel prices altogether, EVs require even less maintenance than a hybrid. The difference between an internal combustion engine and the relatively few moving parts of an electric vehicle is akin to the difference between the workings of a Swiss watch or a plain ol’ Timex bargain. You’ve got a battery pack and an electric motor, and a plug. That’s it.
As with hybrids, some consumers do have concerns about battery packs. These are expensive to replace, and most of us associate battery-powered appliances with the longevity of our smartphones. Those seem to work fine for a while, but after a couple of years, they’re running out of charge in less than a day.
As most Canadian consumers own their cars for at least eight years, battery longevity is a bit of a boogeyman. Happily, the evidence doesn’t really support these fears. As an example, the Nissan Leaf is the best-selling consumer EV on the market, and very few have needed battery replacement in the decade it’s been on sale.
Even if you did need to buy a new battery down the road, the cost of replacing a battery has come down in recent years. Swapping out a tired battery for a refurbished unit will improve the range and extend the useful life of the car, and replacement unit costs line right up against major recommended internal-combustion maintenance requirements like replacing water pumps and timing belts.
There are two other concerns with EVs. First, winter conditions do tend to sap range. If you’re parking your EV indoors in a garage, the cold soak is less of a concern, but you will see reduced range in cold conditions. As with a gasoline car, it’s rare to get the maximum range.
The other hurdle is cost. EVs are expensive, even the mainstream models. Currently, large provincial and federal rebates defray these costs, although that does lead to large initial depreciation.
Plug-in hybrid (PHEV)
Wedged between pure EVs and conventional hybrids are the plug-in hybrids (PHEV). These are just as you’d expect: a conventional hybrid layout with a slightly larger battery pack.
Plug-in hybrids require similar maintenance as a regular hybrid, and they don’t have the maximum range of a pure EV. However, for those with even medium-length commutes, a plug-in hybrid offers the best of both worlds.
On one hand, the shorter all-electric range of a PHEV might be enough to get you to and from work without burning a drop of fuel. Planning on heading out of town, and not sure you’ll be able to plug-in when you get to your destination? Not to worry – a PHEV can function with no more thought than a conventional hybrid.
As infrastructure improves to support EVs and PHEVs, plug-in vehicles will likely rise in popularity. The electric sound barrier, so to speak, has already been broken, and electrified automobiles of all three kinds will continue to join the mainstream.
A dependable hybrid crossover that doesn’t require an extra thought? A compact EV for your urban commute? Or perhaps a PHEV that’ll become the new, eco-friendly family workhorse.
Which one is best for you will depend on your specific needs, but all have their advantages. So, what’s your mission?
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. firstname.lastname@example.org