I test-drove 5 new alt-fuel vehicles in L.A., and here’s what I learned

Today at the Los Angeles Auto Show I got a chance to test-drive the newest green cars on the market. Most of the ones I tried out were electric, but a CNG/gasoline hybrid made an appearance, as did Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai. Unfortunately, no flex-fuel vehicles were made available, probably because they’ve already been accepted into the mainstream and lack the “wow factor” that the L.A. Auto Show tries to promote. Still, it’s a shame they weren’t there, as tried-and-true FFVs will need to play a major role in displacing gasoline while these new technologies get a foothold in our transportation infrastructure.

But enough pontificating. On to the cars!

2016 Ford Focus Electric
Fuel: 100% electric2016 Ford Focus Electric, Exterior
Range: 76 miles
Engine: 107-kw electric motor, 23-kWh liquid cooled lithium-ion battery
143 HP, 184 lb-ft. torque
Curb weight: 3,640 lbs.

Right off the bat, I have to say it feels like Ford phoned this vehicle in. The design is uninspired (read: bad), the range is subpar, and the car itself felt heavy when I was driving it — every time I came to a stop, the whole car felt like it was lurching forward. On the plus side, the acceleration was very smooth, but compared with all the other vehicles I drove today, this one definitely failed to stand out.

2015 Chevy Impala Bi-fuel
Fuel: CNG, Gasoline2015 Chevy Impala Bi-fuel, Exterior
CNG Range: 150 miles / Gasoline Range: 350 miles
Engine: 3.6L V-6
CNG: 230 HP, 218 lb-ft. torque / Gasoline: 260 HP, 247 lb-ft. torque
Curb weight: 4,175 lbs.

I feel very mixed about the Impala Bi-fuel. I love the fuel choice and subsequent savings on fuel costs (around 40 percent) it offers drivers by coming with a CNG tank, and kudos to Chevy for adding CNG to a sedan as opposed to a truck, but the vehicle itself felt heavy and the acceleration sluggish. That makes sense when you consider the curb weight is about 400 pounds heavier than the single-fuel Impala, and the horsepower drops by 12 percent when running on CNG (which it was when I was behind wheel). Probably the least smooth of all the vehicles I drove, but with the ability to run on CNG and a combined range of 500 miles, this car could be appealing to someone whose job has them driving hundreds of miles per day.

2015 Fiat 500e
Fuel: 100% Electric2015 Fiat 500e, Exterior
Range: 87 miles
Engine: 83 kW electric motor
111 HP, 147 lb-ft. torque
Curb weight: 2,980 lbs.

Boy, did the 500e catch me by surprise. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but a few minutes behind the wheel changed my whole perspective. For starters, the acceleration was almost instantaneous. And of all the cars I drove today, the ride in the 500e was the smoothest: It felt like was gliding down the road instead of driving. The test-drive associate claimed this was partially due to 2015 500e being 13 percent more aerodynamic than the 2014 model, but I’d need to drive a 2014 to compare. And at 87 miles of range, the 500e can go a good bit more than double the distance that the average American drives in a day — 37 miles. The biggest downside of the car was the interior, because even though the car technically seats four, I don’t know how you’d fit anything larger than a small dog in the backseat.

2016 Toyota Mirai 
Fuel: Hydrogen Fuel Cell2016 Toyota Mirai, Interior
Range: 312 miles
Engine: 114 kW electric motor, Nickel metal hydride battery
151 HP, 247 lb-ft. torque
Curb weight: 4,079 lbs.

Ah, the Mirai. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are all the rage nowadays. With water vapor for exhaust — which, yes, you can drink — quick fill-up times, and the least-polluting fuel on the market, it makes sense that people would be wowed by these vehicles. Sure, across the vast majority of the country there is quite literally zero fueling infrastructure, but with only three Mirais being manufactured per day and only a handful of them on the road, it’s clear this car is primarily a model for the future. But how does it actually perform? Surprisingly well. Even at a curb weight above 4,000 pounds, 247 lb-ft. of torque ensured that Mirai didn’t feel at all sluggish. The acceleration was second-smoothest of all the cars I drove (behind the Fiat 500e), and I didn’t have to mash the pedal to get up to a decent speed. Aesthetically, the car looks very space-agey, which worked on the exterior, but felt very tacky on the inside. For the first of its kind, I have to say, the Mirai is a solid vehicle. I look forward to future iterations, and more importantly, expanded fueling infrastructure.

2016 Chevy Volt
Fuel: Electric, Gasoline2016 Chevy Volt, Exterior
Electric Range: 53 miles / Gasoline Range: 367 miles
Engine: 111-kw electric motor, 18.4-kWh lithium-ion battery, Ecotec 1.5 L gas-powered range extender
149 HP, 294 lb-ft. torque
Curb weight: 3,543 lbs.

Earlier in the day here at the L.A. Auto Show, the 2016 Volt was awarded the Green Car of Year award by Green Car Journal, and after driving one, I can see why. While the Volt didn’t have the smoothest acceleration of any car I drove, its 294 lb-ft. of torque ensured that it definitely had the most noticeable kick when I hit pedal and, with the exception of the Fiat 500e, it was easily the most fun to drive, taking corners without a hitch. Further, with 53 miles of electric range combined with 367 miles of gasoline range, the already inane “range anxiety” argument has absolutely zero credibility here. And of all the cars I looked at today, the Volt was by far the most pleasing to the eye both inside and out, with a streamlined, sporty exterior and an interior that felt both luxurious and functional.

And the winner is: 2016 Chevy Volt

Only narrowly edging out the agile Fiat 500e, the Volt was my favorite of the cars that I test-drove. While the 500e was a smoother ride, the superior range, fantastic design, and raw power of the Volt was just too hard to deny. Now let’s just get it running on E85 like John Brackett’s 2013 Volt, and then we’d have a real winner.

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