"A glorified golf cart."
Those were the first words that entered my mind when Maui Electric Vehicle Alliance (Maui EVA) Project Director Anne Ku offered to let me test-drive two electric vehicles (EVs) last month.
But there was no golf cart waiting for me at the Enterprise Rent-A-Car parking lot alongside Hana Highway in Kahului. Instead, I was greeted by a sleek, dark blue 2012 Nissan Leaf, an all-electric vehicle that gets the equivalent of 92 mpg on the highway and 106 mpg in the city, according to the EPA. It has a range of up to 100 miles on a single charge, and takes seven hours to go from empty to a full charge (I should note that the battery does not have to be fully drained to be charged).
(Left to right) Enterprise Sales Executive Earl Cachola, Enterprise Sales & Marketing Vice President Chris Sbarbaro, Maui Electric Vehicle Project Director Anne Ku, Enterprise Area Rental Manager Chad Itagaki and Enterprise Branch Manager Kevin Boutwell pose with a 2012 Chevy Volt, one of the electric vehicles available for rent at Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Kahului. Compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, zero-emission vehicles create less pollution, which is why they are widely considered to be an environmentally friendly alternative.
The first order of business: a peek under the hood. At first glance, the Leaf's engine might look like a regular gasoline engine, but there are a few differences.
As one might expect, an electric car is powered by an electric motor--not a gasoline engine. The electric motor is powered by a controller, which gets its power from an array of rechargeable batteries. In an all-electric vehicle, the dash-mounted fuel gauge is actually a volt meter (or, "voltmeter") that monitors the flow of amps to and from the battery array.
Compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, zero-emission vehicles create less pollution, which is why they are widely considered to be an environmentally friendly alternative.
Other than that, what's the best thing about this car? Zero trips to the gas station. The second best thing? That irresistible new-car smell. After a quick tutorial, I was off and running--albeit very quietly. But to say that the Nissan Leaf is quiet would be an understatement. I found it nearly impossible to tell if it was on or off; however, it did emit a low-tone "beep" when in reverse.
Other than the unexpected silent treatment, the Leaf served up a few more surprises. Performance-wise, it proved to be brisk, responsive and fun to drive. It handled beautifully on flat stretches of roadway and steep hills alike. However, I quickly discovered that the Leaf is not a racecar and it should not be driven like one, as the range greatly depends on how you drive, not necessarily where and for how long. It may be able to reach speeds up to 90 mph, but I assure you, driving like Speed Racer definitely takes its toll on the battery.
Kevin Boutwell, branch manager of Enterprise Rent-A-Car, explained that the Leaf has a range-boosting "eco mode" that--with just a push of a button--restricts power in order to extend the range of the battery. But like nearly all EVs, when it comes to battery range, it all depends on how you drive the car.
This is where the concept of "range anxiety" comes in.
Although you won't find it in psychiatric journals yet--range anxiety is a very real phenomenon. If you own an all-electric vehicle, you become acutely aware of how you are driving, how far you've gone--and how much farther you have to go.
In order to quell range anxiety, said Ku, "We need to increase the number of available charging stations." And if Maui EVA has its way, that may soon become a reality.
As for "charging up" the Leaf, my garage doubled as my filling station. I am far from tech-savvy, but it was a very simple process. Literally, all one has to do it plug it into a regular outlet (there's a reassuring beep to let you know that it's plugged in properly). Just like charging your cell phone, an overnight charge ensures that you are ready to hit the road the next morning.
Initially, I was troubled by one thought: If I decided to purchase an EV, would that cost me a bundle? After a little research, I discovered that most EV owners see a slight bump in their monthly electricity bills, but it's significantly less than what they would pay at the pump.
After 24 hours with the Leaf, it was time to trade for a 2012 Chevy Volt. The five-door compact hatchback is very similar to the Leaf; however, it offered a little more peace of mind. Unlike the all-electric Leaf, the Volt is equipped with two energy sources: It uses battery power exclusively until it runs out, then it automatically switches over to gas power. And that's probably a good thing, since the Volt only provides up to 40 miles of battery range--but offers roughly 300 miles from a gasoline engine-generator that powers the car's motor.
Just like the Leaf, it takes about seven hours to charge a fully depleted lithium-ion battery pack. As for driving performance, the Volt is very similar to a "regular car," and packs a lot of punch when accelerating and driving uphill. The interior is not as spacious as the Leaf, but the traditional dual cockpit design and bucket seats guarantee a fun and unique driving experience.
My overall impression? Two thumbs up, for the Leaf and the Volt.
EVs may be the new kids on the block, but not for long. EV infrastructure is flourishing across the country, with charging stations popping up on almost every corner. Maui EVA and Enterprise Rent-A-Car hope that Maui County will soon follow suit.
In 2011, Enterprise became the first car rental company in the State of Hawai'i to introduce EVs to the market, and it plans to expand its EV presence further. The addition of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car fleet in Maui is one step toward achieving that goal.
If you're in the market for an EV, I'd suggest you "try before you buy" and rent one from Enterprise-Rent-A-Car for a day or two for an extended test drive.
Chris Sbarbaro, vice president of sales and marketing for Enterprise in Hawai'i, said that customers who rent EVs as replacement vehicles (while their current cars are being repaired) are more likely to purchase the same or similar make and model in the future. Sbarbaro said there has been a demand for EVs since Enterprise introduced the first fleet on O'ahu, and he expects the demand to increase--as more consumers become amped up about EVs.
He agreed that renting an EV eliminates some of the uncertainty about alternative fueled vehicles, and answers some of the more frequently asked questions ("How far can I drive it?" "What's it like to drive?" or "How do I charge it?").
But if you are already sold on the idea of having an EV in your garage on a more permanent basis, Jim Falk Motors of Maui now has an inventory of zero-emission cars--including the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt--on its lot, available for purchase right away (previously, consumers had to pre-order their vehicles online and wait 90 days or longer).
The Valley Isle is the ideal site for EVs, according to Maui EVA. Since its inception on Nov. 1, 2011, Maui EVA has formed working groups to tackle issues of infrastructure, policy, visitor concerns, residential and local businesses, and education needs. Maui EVA and University of Hawai'i Maui College are currently working on a campaign to integrate EVs into the overall transportation grid.
"Our goal is to get Maui ready for EVs," said Ku. "It's a remarkable opportunity for all of us."
For more information about Maui EVA or for an updated list of available public charging stations, visit mauieva.org, call (808) 984-3351 or email Ku at email@example.com. To learn more about Enterprise Rent-A-Car, visit www.enterpriseholdings.com or call (808) 871-1511.