Stories & Features

Test driving 7 electric vehicles in one morning

Image of Nissan Leaf EV
The Nissan Leaf EV was one of seven electric vehicles available to the public for a test drive at BC Hydro's downtown Vancouver main office on Dunsmuir Street.

Ride and drive event showcased some of the latest models right here in Vancouver

Posted by Blaine Kyllo

Despite my curiosity and interest about electric vehicles (EVs), I never had an opportunity to drive one. On Monday, October 27 I drove seven different models.

It was part of an EV tradeshow and conference being held in Vancouver. The annual event is organized by Electric Mobility Canada, and this year BC Hydro hosted the "ride and drive" event curb side at the headquarters on Dunsmuir in downtown Vancouver.

Seven manufacturers provided plug-in vehicles for media and the general public to take for a spin: BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Smart. I started at 10 a.m. and by noon had experienced each car, first hand.

What surprised me about EVs

I didn't want to just experience driving the EVs in the stop-start of downtown traffic, so the route I took when behind the wheel was out the Georgia Viaduct, down to Main Street, and back up onto the Dunsmuir Viaduct.

If I didn't look too closely at the dash, I wouldn't have known I was driving an EV. The experience of driving is so similar to being in a gasoline-powered car. And I wasn't taking it easy, either. I wasn't speeding — good thing because there was a speed trap set up on the viaduct that morning — but I did accelerate quickly to get a sense of the cars' power. They all got off the line nicely.

Things all the EVs had in common

All EVs have regenerative systems that use some of the potential energy created by the vehicles forward movement to charge the battery. This can't fully charge the battery, but a driver in the city can really maximize the range they can travel while in stop-and-go traffic.

With one exception, the EVs I drove all have a range of somewhere between 120 and 150 km (the Ford C-Max Energi is limited to about 36 km on the battery alone). And almost all of the EVs have gasoline-powered "range extenders" to help vehicles travel further without needing to plug in.

Image of the display panel in the Chevrolet Volt
The Chevrolet Volt's LCD panel provides a variety of information you just don't see in a gas-powered car.

Vive la différence

Despite the similarities, each of the seven vehicles was unique, and had aspects that clearly differentiated them from the others.

BMW i3

This was my favourite ride, and of all the EVs it was the one that seemed the most futuristic and innovative. The boxy external design of the car makes for a spacious and comfortable interior and the carbon fibre structure of the vehicle is why there's no cross bar between the front and rear doors, which only adds to the effect.

The dash is a marvel of minimalism, and the i3 was the fastest accelerator. Its regenerative system is designed so that when you take your foot off the accelerator, the vehicle automatically starts slowing down, something that would take a bit of getting used to.

Cadillac ELR

This may use the same drive train as the Chevrolet Volt, but the ELR has the luxury styling that is synonymous with the Cadillac brand. It's equipped with all LED lighting, including the vertical daytime running lights. Certain features on the ELR are automated, such as the headlights (including the high-beam) and the parking brake. There are even paddles on the steering column, but because they aren't used for a transmission in the ELR, they trigger regenerative braking.

Chevrolet Volt

More of a functional vehicle, the Volt is a decent replacement for a gasoline vehicle, and it's very easy to operate. My only complaint is that the information-riddled dashboard may overwhelm some drivers. It wasn't easy, initially, to find out just how fast I was driving.

Ford C-Max Energi

Of the seven vehicles at the Ride and Drive, the C-Max Energi was the only one that can switch to a full hybrid electric-gasoline mode. The range of the battery is only 36 km, which is actually sufficient for most urban dwellers who rarely travel more than that distance in a regular day. For those spontaneous trips to Whistler in the C-Max Energi, you can fill up with gas and run it as a hybrid.

Mitsubishi iMiEV

Mitsubishi claims its four seater is the most affordable EV at $27,998. The iMiEV is also the most similar to a gasoline-powered vehicle of any that I drove. It has a normal key starter, a stick for the manual transmission, and a pull-up parking brake. That's because the iMiEV is the same as a Mitsubishi gasoline vehicle sold in Japan. The "i" is the model of vehicle, while the rest of the letters in this car's name stand for "Mitsubishi innovative electric vehicle".

Nissan Leaf

Purpose built as an electric vehicle, this 5-door hatchback has some features that you'd find in a gasoline car "to make people feel at home" said the Nissan representative who accompanied me on my test drive. The Leaf is very aerodynamic to maximize the efficiency of the electric motor, and a dedicated photovoltaic panel on the top of the hatchback charges the accessory battery (things such as the wipers, radio, and LED headlights).

Smart EV

Manufactured by Mercedes, the EV version of the two-seater Smart car feels bigger than it is. Until I turned around and looked into the back seat of the vehicle, I felt like I was driving something larger. The vehicle is constructed with "Tridion" safety cells, designed by Smart and manufactured by Magna in Canada, and creates a cockpit for your body that is equivalent to a helmet for your head.

The Smart is also simple. While most of the other vehicles had operative modes like "sport" or "eco" for the regenerative systems, with the Smart it's a single, automatic mode that drivers don't have to worry about.

Acknowledging the limitations

Mitsubishi's Shawn Bryan explained that there are three main complaints about electric vehicles: they are too expensive, they take too long to charge, and the range of the vehicles is too short.

It's true that EVs are not the best choice of vehicle for everyone. The seven models I piloted are all designed for urban environments and standard commutes. And because I'm not shopping for an EV, I didn't concern myself with the cost of the vehicles.

But I found each of them to be interesting in one way or another. A couple of them I'd even like to have in my driveway someday. I certainly wouldn't mind not having to pull into a gas station again.

Blaine Kyllo is a Vancouver-based writer and frequent contributor to bchydro.com.