Fighting Range Anxiety in the Electric 2014 Chevrolet Spark
"It’s a rocket,” said Dave Barthmuss, GM’s Western Region PR Manager, when I took delivery of the new 2014 Chevy Spark EV for a four-day test drive in Southern California.
Able to reach 0 to 60 mph in less than 7.6 seconds, all on pure battery electric power, Barthmuss was right about the spritely performance of the electric Spark: That’s pretty good performance for an electric car. Based on the Beat, one of GM’s global triplet concept cars unveiled at the 2007 New York International Auto Show and designed at the automaker’s Korean design studio, the four-passenger Spark EV has a top speed of 90 mph and boasts 105 kilowatts (140 horsepower) of electric drive power. Not that speed was my primary interest when I took delivery however, but speed and quick pick-up did come in handy when I wanted to change lanes or merge in front of that driver talking on his cell phone while driving 75 mph in a gas-guzzling SUV on LA’s tightly packed 101 and 405 highways. But I digress.
With a 21-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, the Spark EV lists an EPA electric-only range of 82 miles, but I was regularly getting 96-98 miles on a full charge. Achieving that on the first day, though, did take some time as the vehicle arrived to me with 45 miles left on the battery. Knowing how much range I had left on a charge was as easy as looking at the 7-inch color touch screen in front of the steering wheel that is standard equipment as part of Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system, a useful connectivity feature to help keep your eyes on the road and distractions at bay.
The Spark EV charges about five to six miles per hour on a 120-volt outlet, which equates to about 17 hours to fully charge the battery. At 240-volts, that time is reduced to seven hours. And with DC fast charging, it only takes 20 minutes for 80% charge.
This brought up a little bit of range anxiety on day two of the test drive when I wanted to travel from the San Fernando Valley to West LA for lunch with a friend, to an appointment just two miles from there and then to Pasadena with her and another passenger for a movie, then home again to the San Fernando Valley. All said, we were planning to travel a total distance (by Mapquest) of about 75 miles and the gauge indicated a 78-mile charge on the battery.
It being my first time driving any significant distance in the Spark EV, I was nervous. I made sure I drove the vehicle in ‘L’ or ‘Low’ mode, which allows the power train to recapture maximum regenerative energy when your foot is off the accelerator or when braking. I would get a tickle out of seeing the miles left on the battery actually increase when I was able to put my hypermiling knowledge to the test and use the vehicle’s momentum as much as possible to extend my range.
Ultimately, this is the issue when it comes to electric vehicles: building out the charging infrastructure. To put it in perspective, American motorists have access to 121,446 gas stations nationwide. Yet, there are only 20,138 electric vehicle charging stations throughout the country. Something needs to change here if electric vehicles are to become ubiquitous in the near term. But that is another blog post for another time. Until then, better have your EV fully charged when you leave home, or have ready access to a charger at work. Or in the case of a GM vehicle, OnStar installed, which with just a push of a button, can direct you to the nearest charging station. Just don’t forget to pack your charger though. Like I did. Grrr.
So, as I continued my plan to travel 75 miles on a 78-mile potential charge, when it had about 10 miles left on its battery charge the vehicle went into ‘Limp Home’ mode, a unique feature that shut off non-essential options like air conditioning and the XM/Sirius satellite radio and also reduced power to the electric drive motor to conserve energy so I could make it home – a neat feature I was very grateful to have!
That experience in itself was priceless. Knowing how an electric vehicle reacts as it approaches the extent of its range is valuable knowledge to have, just as when the gauge on a gas-powered vehicle says it’s on ’E’ for empty.
From here, the rest of the test drive was free of incident and I could now relax into the experience knowing the limits of the car. The next day with a full 96-mile charge, I did some local errands and drove to Santa Monica for a holiday party at a fellow EV-evangelist’s house, then home again, all with no worry about distance, speed, or range.
While at the party, I did have the opportunity to take a couple on a little joy ride in the Spark EV. We remarked on the pleasures of driving in peace and quiet in an EV, due to there being no engine noise. If silence is golden, then this alone makes the Spark EV worth the price tag. Or at least worth the price of XM/Sirius satellite radio, which in an EV is twice as nice. I’m not sure how much the older couple appreciated me doing donuts in the intersection to show off the turning radius of the Spark EV, but they did remark on the quick acceleration, the rear-headroom at 37.3 inches, and the ability to park such a small car measuring 144 inches anywhere on the streets of LA. I concurred on every point.
Alas, the time came to return the Spark EV, a sad day indeed. I loved driving this vehicle knowing that I was not contributing to smog or poor air quality by using electricity not gasoline to power a car. I especially loved it once I got over my range anxiety -- and I remembered to close the charging door and pack the charger itself.
This car may not be for everyone though. If you have a commute of 100 miles or so and no place to charge the vehicle while at work, the Spark EV may not be for you. At $27,820 (including destination but before a federal tax credit and California rebates), this electric vehicle may still be out of reach for many. The Federal tax credit is certainly an incentive, but not everyone may qualify for the full amount as it is based on your tax liability. (Don't owe $7500 in taxes? The IRS is not cutting you a refund check based on credits for your purchase of this car.) Consumers must purchase the vehicle first at the full purchase price and the Federal tax credit and comes on your next year’s tax return; California buyers simply apply for their Clean Vehicle rebate and receive their reimbursement within a month or so. But with a full rebate, the price of $19,185 and estimated fuel savings of $9,000 over five years compared to an average new vehicle, not to mention savings on maintenance, it certainly makes for an attractive purchase. Leasing the EV may be more affordable with options starting at $199/mo and $999 down at select dealers. Also, keep in mind the Chevy Spark EV is only available in California and Oregon, so if you don’t live in one of these two states, you’d have to ship the vehicle to your destination.
Perhaps if there really is a Santa Claus, he will put keys to a 2014 Chevy Spark EV under my tree this year, which would make for a very Merry Christmas indeed. Here’s hoping!
Matt Kelly is an evangelist for green technology and alternative transportation, he’s received accolades for developing the California Fuel Cell Partnership web series “Test Drive the Future,” in accordance with key stakeholder objectives; from General Motors for creating exclusive video blog content for GMnext.com, which resulted in him being named a must-follow Twitter feed by a leading environmental publication; and from American Airlines for his collaboration with AA Publishing on a broad-based initiative depicting exclusive AA travel destinations and distributed across online, internal and embedded email media platforms. Matt lives in Los Angeles, where he's consulted for clients including Hybridfest, Green Drive Expo–Bay Area, and HybridCars.com and PluginCars.com, among others.