The following is excerpted from an article by Jen Danziger for Green Car Reports, January 29, 2015. Read the full article here. 

Driving Small Electric Cars in the Real World

Reader Jen Danziger explains what it’s really like to drive a very small battery-electric car year-round in the Midwest.

In the years following my participation in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize, I have watched with keen interest as major car companies introduced electric vehicles into their fleets.

Obsessed with cars since my teen years, I now have a newly-developed nerdy focus on electric cars.

In January 2013, a dealership in Bloomington offered a two-year, $69 monthly lease on the 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV. When the news hit the internet, it quickly ran out of cars. Luckily, my local dealership was willing to follow suit and offer a deep discount.  Within days, I was driving a purple i-MiEV for zero dollars down and $156 per month. I had a new car, for little more than the cost of gas for my 2006 Pontiac Vibe. My tiny electric car experiment had begun.

I live in a rural village in central Illinois. My round-trip commute to work is 28 miles, 20 of them on an Interstate highway. I knew this would pose no problem in the summertime.

But taking possession of the i-MiEV in the winter meant I was briefly faced with range anxiety. The i-MiEV displays only bars for state of charge, and the estimated miles remaining can drop rapidly depending on the wind and temperature. The first accessories I purchased for the car were a steering wheel cover and a blanket, because the heater devoured battery capacity while barely warming the cabin. To make my daily commute, I had to bundle up, turn on the seat heater, and cover myself with a blanket. The 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack wasn’t enough to allow the luxury of heat.

I quickly learned that a 120-Volt charging cord wouldn’t fully recharge the i-MiEV overnight.

I would start the next day with three-quarters of capacity, and had to drive on the interstate at 45 mph to retain enough charge to return home. As cars careened around me, I stared ahead in my little purple car, careful not to make eye contact with irritated drivers.  A 240-Volt Level 2 charging station was required for regular use. With it I could drive faster in cold weather, and ensure the battery would be fully recharged by morning.

It also made a huge difference with pre-heating the car in the garage. The i-MiEV has a remote control to turn on the AC or heater while it’s plugged in. On 120 Volts, the heat trickles out. At Level 2, though, it blasts, making the car toasty on a cold morning. That heat quickly dissipates, and frankly, driving without heat in the Arctic temperatures of the winter of 2013 was torturous. Electric cars are great in warm weather, though. The batteries operate better in higher temperatures, increasing the range so I’m not limited to running errands within a mile of my workplace.

Unlike the heater, the air conditioning was efficient and didn’t take a painful percentage of the battery charge. In summer, I found I was more likely to deplete the pack because I fearlessly drove farther afield than in the winter–and the quiet cabin prevented me from hearing if I was driving directly into strong wind.

The i-MiEV reacts with alarm to strange things. If a wind gust hits the side of the car, the traction control engages as if it’s slipping on ice. In temperatures near or below freezing, a snowflake will appear on the dash while the car dings maddeningly, as if it’s screaming “Danger – it may be cold!!” Drive the car until the battery is nearly depleted, and it silently blinks the fuel gauge icon at you as the state of charge bars disappear and the estimated remaining miles sit at zero. But there are no audible alarms–nothing to draw your attention to the possibility of soon being stranded.

One caught my eye: the Wheego LiFe. I contacted Wheego, located in Atlanta, Georgia, and the company answered all of my technical questions. I was impressed with its openness and willingness to help me source parts, or troubleshoot problems.

Before long I purchased a used 2013 Wheego LiFe at the insanely low price of $7,733.

Wheego LiFe - Photo by Jen Danziger

Wheego LiFe – Photo by Jen Danziger

The LiFe is tiny, two-person car for this single occupant driver, but it offers enough room for groceries or my recycle bins. It has a 30-kilowatt-hour battery pack–almost twice the size of the i-MiEV’s–which gives me far more range than I need for daily driving. Its heater is more powerful, but I do miss the i-MiEV’s seat warmer and that handy remote. The informative dash display includes amps, volts, percent state of charge and watts per mile.

It also has additional screens of data, including battery temperature, pack voltage, and DC current. Having access to this data is great; I like knowing just how the car is operating. Like Mitsubishi’s electric minicar, the LiFe has regenerative breaking–but only in one mode instead of two. It handles well in the winter weather, even without traction control. But there are some things I am still getting used to. For one, its top speed is 65 mph. This means using more caution when merging onto highways. And the ride is jarringly bumpy, making the i-MiEV seem smooth in comparison. Also, the battery management system puts a serious load on the pack, making it dangerous to leave the Wheego unplugged for several days.

Over the course of this 16,700-mile experiment, I realized I’m not concerned about the efficiency of an electric vehicle, as measured in Miles Per Gallon Equivalent, or MPGe. Instead, I am more impressed by price, range per charge, and the ability to keep me at least somewhat warm. And I’ve learned to be a less aggressive, more efficient driver.

In the end, I continue to relish driving unusual-looking small electric cars in a gas-guzzling world stuffed with SUVs.

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