Stopped at a red light preparing to turn onto Two Notch Road, you’re not even sure the iMiev is really on.
There is no hum of a motor. No gentle rumble to let you know Mitsubishi’s new electric car actually will move when you push the “gas” pedal.
But move it does – as effortlessly, and with the same speed, as a similar-sized gas-powered car, such as a Ford Focus.
If not for the sound of tires on asphalt, it almost would feel like gliding.
The electric-car trend is gaining ground as automakers roll out new models and charging stations begin popping up across the country.
As the average price of gas has stayed above $3 a gallon for the past year, Americans are looking for alternatives – from cars with better gas mileage to hybrids, which use a mix of gas and electric, to the emerging all-electric models.
But how realistic is it to buy and drive an electric car in South Carolina?
“As a family’s second car, it’s a great option,” said James Poch, executive director of Plug-in Carolina.
The cars, in general, run 60 to 100 miles before they need to be recharged, making them good options for commuters who can drive them to work and back home each day, and then charge them at night.
“You should never really have to have a charging station to get home,” Poch said.
For single-car homes or folks who regularly drive longer distances each day, a hybrid car, such as a Chevy Volt with a gas engine back-up would be a better option, Poch said.
Support from the states
South Carolina and other states are moving toward building an infrastructure for drivers who want to make longer trips in an all-electric car.
Plug-in Carolina received a $480,000 federal grant from the Department of Energy to install 65 charging stations. It was able to stretch that money to open 93 charging stations in nine cities throughout the state, Poch said. That includes two charging stations in each of Columbia’s city-owned parking garages.
The organization has all of the station’s addresses listed on its website – plugincarolina.org – and hopes to put them on a map and develop an iPhone app for drivers soon, he said.
Some retailers, such as Cracker Barrel and Rite Aid, also are considering installing charging stations so travelers can shop or eat while they wait half an hour for a charge. Charging at a typical, less powerful home station takes from four to eight hours.
“The diffusion of technology takes decades,” Poch said. “This is something that’s going to take 20 to 30 years to become the norm.”
Money Spent v. Money Saved
Buying an electric car still is expensive when compared to cars of similar size.
But a federal tax credit of $7,500 helps offset the purchase price.
After the tax credit, a basic electric car will cost from about $23,000 for the new iMiev to $28,000 for a Nissan Leaf and up to $50,000 or $100,000 or more for sportier versions, such as the Tesla, Poch said.
Drivers also must spend about $2,000 for a home charging station and if batteries need to be replaced, costs could skyrocket. However, most of the cars come with 8-year or 100,000-mile warranties and battery lives are expected to range from 150,000 to 200,000 miles.
In return, electric-car drivers will save about $1,200 a year in gas and roughly $200 a year in maintenance, Poch said, which could make the extra cost worth it.
Costs also could come down as electric-car makers provide more models and consumers begin embracing them.
All-electric cars have been available in South Carolina only for about a year, Poch said. A year ago, only a handful of people in the state were driving them. Now, Poch estimates there are about 100, and he expects that number to grow rapidly in the coming months.
“There’s going to be at least a dozen models coming out within the next 18 months,” Poch said, including an electric Ford Focus and Honda Fit.
“Everyone is dipping their toes in the water with electric or extended-range vehicles,” Poch said. “This is really just an improved way of driving.”
Shoppers show interest
Dick Dyer Mitsubishi in Columbia has two iMiev cars in stock, although sales manager Dennis Taylor said many customers pick out the car online and then have it delivered to the dealership.
“We’ve had a lot of folks come in and look at them,” he said.
As gas prices stay stuck above $3 per gallon, Taylor said customers, in general, are looking for a range of vehicles with better gas mileage. The iMiev gets 112 miles per the electric equivalent of a gallon.
“You can’t get 15 miles per gallon anymore,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t make sense.”