Let’s get something straight: From this moment forward, hybrids and pure electric cars are nothing special, nothing futuristic. A Tesla is just another car on the highway. So is a Prius. But that’s just the beginning. Carmakers have invested billions in hybrids and electrics, and every major manufacturer sells them both here and overseas. Carmakers can’t afford to riff too many variations on what they offer here vs. what they offer there—imagine selling entirely different skis or backpacks in other regions of the world. It’s too expensive.
The current United States government may be in the process of dis-incentivizing wind and solar power, but every other market is already moving toward cleaner fuels. It might not dawn on politicians here for some time yet, but the carmakers already know that you either chase Tesla or get left in the dust. So whether you’re GM or Toyota, Ford, BMW, Mercedes or Volkswagen, you’re going to spend your billions for the broadest swath of customers possible rather than get caught up in American partisan politics.
So you ask, what’s all of this got to do with my upcoming road trip? One word: Bolt.
As in, the Chevy Bolt, the first electric vehicle (EV) not made by Tesla with legit range to rival a gas-powered car. It’ll go 238 miles on one charge, and nope, we don’t say that theoretically: We tested one over five days and got that kind of range (or better) driving on the Interstate, climbing steep passes and rolling to hiking and mountain bike trailheads. While 238 miles isn’t the 600 miles you get out of the leanest, meanest hybrids like, say, the Prius V (see sidebar), it’s still decent enough to plot your route from Boulder, Colorado, to Boulder, Utah, recharging everywhere from drugstore parking lots to museums and campgrounds for a single stint behind the wheel. And get this: You can increasingly find ultra-fast recharging by using apps like ChargePoint and PlugShare, which locate the nearest juice.
Plan accordingly and you can travel with a very small carbon footprint. Of course, that very much depends on the source of energy production that’s feeding electricity to your Bolt (elecricity from coal is still dirty), but as a general rule, the farther from a “tailpipe” you get, the lower the a car’s carbon emissions, according to a 2015 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The key takeaway: Pretty much no matter where you live, plugging in is cleaner than filling up. And about two-thirds of Americans live in regions where powering an EV on the regional electricity grid produces lower global warming emissions than a car that gets 50 MPG on gasoline.
Any car that plugs in is a good thing, but we’re fixating on the Bolt because this is the road trip issue of EO—and although the range of pure EV’s like the Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 have increased for 2017, those cars are can’t achieve long-range travel. Also, the Bolt is larger inside than either of those choices—with 56.6 cubic feet of capacity behind the two front seats we fit two mountain bikes and two overnight-capacity backpacks inside it. That’s important when it comes to efficiency, because adding cargo boxes and loading bikes (or kayaks) on racks might make your rig look cool, but it adds wind resistance. If your goal is driving farther on a charge, you’re looking to cheat the wind, not fight against it.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Chevy Bolt is quick—tap the Sport Mode button and this unassuming compact will smoke a lot of sports cars off the line. More importantly, that means you won’t feel handicapped driving this front-wheel-drive car up 10,000-foot mountain passes, and it truly corners very confidently, with all its battery weight essentially in the car’s frame, which it feels reasonably planted and stable on the road.
Sure, that $37,000 sticker price might sound scary, and it would be pretty expensive relative to fuel-cost savings—except that, at least if you buy the car in 2017, you’ll qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $5,000 state tax credit in Colorado (a credit that, by the way, may be recalled by the state legislature, which would end that rebate after 2017). Other states offer incentives, too, even more conservative states such as Utah, where tax credits are tiered (35 percent of the purchase price) and there are added perks like HOV lane use and free parking as well as waived registration fees. (Head to pluginamerica.org to get more details about individual state/community incentives.)
The bottom line? Both pure electric and plug-in/conventional hybrids are here to stay. Carmakers will be producing more and more of these green vehicles because we’re finally entering an era where you don’t have to make lifestyle sacrifices to notice big changes, both personal and societal, if you purchase of a sustainable vehicle.
All of this is a very good thing if you care about the environment. Environmentally minded consumers are still a very small minority of Americans—but there’s hope: The more that hybrids and EVs become the default, the more they become the Starbucks of driving, and the more “American” they’ll become. And in the long term, the future depends on how we all consider the impacts of our road trips, no matter whether we live in the red, blue or purple USA.
Eco-izing Your Road Trip
Simple tips to go easy on the environment—and save you cash.
Run the A/C moderately rather than cracking the windows (because crappy aerodynamics wastes more gas than A/C).
Leave a standard transmission car in gear when descending long mountain passes. It gives you the option of using the throttle if you need to (vs. putting the car in neutral) and it doesn’t burn fuel because straight-up compression forces the engine to turn over, rather than using fuel to keep the engine at idle.
Inflate your tires to the proper PSI listed on the driver’s side door, not what it says on the tire sidewall. You’ll also find a max pressure listing there in case you’re towing or are loaded down with heavy gear and peeps.
Carry some Tire Slime and a 12-volt inflator. This is key if you’re going to hell and back on fire roads. You might not be on safe enough ground to jack up the car. But you could pull the tire core, insert the slime (works like mountain bike sealant), and then re-inflate with the compressor. Unless the puncture is a severe slice, this hack will probably hold at least until you get to safer jacking turf. Also: If you don’t have a full-size spare tire, get one. Don’t know? Check your trunk. —M.F.
These five new hybrids offer eco friendly performance:
Hyundai Ioniq Blue Hybrid | $23,000
With up to 58 miles per gallon combined city/highway, the newest option from Hyundai rivals Toyota’s Prius. It gets slightly better fuel economy and is more spacious inside than the base Prius (though its 50 cubic square feet with the rear seats folded is not as roomy as the biggest Prius V, below). Still, it’s a smooth driver that, importantly for some buyers, looks conventional rather, um, as “distinctive” as the current base Prius.
Toyota Prius V Two | $27,560
Nearly 70 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats folded down rivals or tops the capacity of a lot of crossovers—and the biggest Prius also happens to be the best looking in the Prius lineup. The handling is also greatly improved with this new gen, and, even at this size, you’re still getting 41 miles per gallon combined. Need AWD? Get the RAV4 Hybrid or Nissan Rogue, instead.
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid | $29,030
The taller-riding RAV4 has nearly dead-on metrics for interior space as the Prius V with its rear seats folded or upright, but has a taller roof, which means you could comfortably sleep in that hatch area. AWD isn’t switchable, meaning the rear wheels engage when you need either additional traction or propulsion, but it’s functional, meaning it kicks in when you’re climbing up a loose fire road or churning out of your driveway in snow. While 33 MPG combined fuel economy isn’t mind-blowing most all-wheel-drive SUVs this roomy are muddling along at 25 or lower combined MPG.
Nissan Rogue Hybrid AWD | $27,590
With 8.2 inches of ground clearance this is the only affordable hybrid SUV with legit off-roading chops, besting the ground clearance of the RAV4 by a few inches. Nope, we still wouldn’t take a Rogue out with your pals who have snorkels on their Jeeps, but you’ll get to trailheads at the end of nasty fire roads without worry. While its 61 cubic feet of cargo (rear seats flipped down) is shy of the RAV4’s roominess, the Nissan is still spacious, and handling is notably more “carlike” than most hybrids, too. Plus, it gets the same combined 33MPG as the RAV4.
Subaru impreza | $18,895
This isn’t a hybrid, but with up to 37 MPG on the highway, AWD standard, 55 cubic feet of cargo room, and a bargain sticker price the Impreza is an obvious road-trip crowd pleaser. If you need ground clearance you’ll have to ante $21,695 for a CrossTrek version. —M.F.