Monday, September 1, 2014

The Keeper

Each could not be more different from the other, with its own unique personality, behaviors, strengths, weaknesses, delights, and unfortunately, complete frustrations. It's not a surprise that folks sometimes ask... if I had to choose, which one would I keep? Which one is my favorite?

No, I'm not talking about offspring. However, now that I'm thinking of it, the boys are getting to an age where sometimes, if only for a split second, there just might be a clear choice between one or the other. Sarcasm, testing the limits, pleading ignorance, and other undesirable behaviors in general are surfacing all at once. Product of bad parenting? Perhaps. "Do as I say, not as I do," I demand of them repeatedly. Shouldn't that be enough?

Thankfully, that's not the hypothetical situation folks are really curious about. More often than not, when someone asks me which one I'd choose, they're interested in hearing a comparison between what's parked in our driveway -
 a Focus Electric, a Volt, and a RAV4 EV. A tough question, one that I've avoided answering here until now, because I love them all. The RAV4 EV and Volt were just added to the fleet, I reasoned, and wanted to have a chance to really live with the two for a while to make sure I don't render a decision borne out of haste or favoritism. It's been seven months since, so I figured it's about time.

That being said, my favorite is, and always has been, the Focus Electric. Of the three, I find that it offers the most enjoyable overall driving experience. It has the best handling characteristics, with qualities that instill confidence when tossing it around a bit. By the seat of my pants, it seems to have the quickest steering response, best roadholding ability, firmest suspension, and most predictable reactions to braking and throttle inputs when at or near the limit of adhesion in tight corners as well as sweeping turns. It's got some spunk from 20mph all the way up to its 85mph speed limiter. Nowhere near the acceleration of  the RAV4 EV, but in that range it seems to have much more than the Volt, which peters out disappointingly at about 40-50mph. The FFE has more than enough instantaneous oomph to catch territorial drivers of garden variety BMWs and Audis off-guard, so lane changes and passing are a breeze on Southern California freeways. Its only Achilles' heel, which is a crippling one at times, is its embarrassing 85mph cutoff.

The FFE also has the best cabin, as far as fit, finish, quality of materials, quietness, and driver comfort. In my book, it's tied with the Volt. Both the Volt and the FFE are at a level above the RAV4 EV, which suffers from cheap-feeling, easily stained seat materials, inadequate sound insulation, a low driving position with no adjustment for seat height, and awkwardly placed HVAC controls and displays that require the driver's line of sight to focus just left of the front passenger's knees while driving.

Speaking of controls and displays, the FFE's are by far the best of the three. I'll get into this in another article, but to summarize, it has the most comprehensive, intuitive center display that requires the least amount of user input to get to a particular function or readout. it also has an optimum balance of on-screen controls and hardwired buttons/knobs, and has the most customizable, least cluttered instrumentation display behind the steering wheel. The Volt suffers most from its frustrating center display; for almost any function or display you want, it will take at least one more stroke to get there on a Volt than it would using the FFE's MyFordTouch (MFT). Also, the Volt's
Chevy Volt Center Display
display doesn't even acknowledge that it's a wonderful plug-in, not just another hybrid; it needlessly emphasizes gasoline efficiency rather than electrical efficiency. There is so much space on its energy information display wasted by a big, useless green ball and MPG in huge font that there is no room to display data that an EV driver really cares about and can actually use to adjust driving behavior, such as Wh/mi or mi/kWh information. Current, trip average, and cumulative average of electrical efficiency and consumption are all essential info for an EV driver, but for the most part sorely missing in the current Volt. Hopefully the Gen 2 Volt addresses this deficiency.

As for the RAV4 EV's instrumentation - for me, it's a love/hate relationship, mostly hate. Overly complicated, center display screen resolution that rivals Pong and Minecraft, and way too many strokes to do almost anything related to the sound system. It's a freaking mess. Again, I will get into details of controls and displays for these EVs in a future article.

RAV4 Sport (ICE)
Finally, out of the three, I prefer the exterior features of the Focus Electric. Volt comes in  a very close second. That being said, the RAV4 body, although dated, looks pretty good for a Cute Ute when in EV trim. If it donned the fender flares and rims from the Sport model, it'd be quite the looker.

So in a nutshell, that's why the Focus Electric is my favorite of the three, primarily because it offers the best overall driving experience. But what if I had to whittle the fleet down to just one? Which one is the keeper? Perhaps unexpectedly, that would have to be the  RAV4 EV. By a longshot. Why? Well, despite its shortcomings, it excels at what is important in a scenario where I could only have one vehicle. In particular, it has the most cargo capacity, most passenger space, and highest electric range. With over 36 cu ft of space behind the rear seats, seats that are much more roomy than the Focus Electric or Volt, and a range of 100 miles on standard charge (and up to 140 miles on extended charge, in my experience), it's a no-brainer for me that the RAV4 EV is the one to keep if I could only have one.

In fact, it's the one I will buy upon lease termination, for a couple of  reasons. For one, its residual is virtually identical to the other two in the fleet, which is in the $20K-$21K range. From that perspective, it's a relative bargain. But the more compelling reason for me is that unlike the Volt and FFE, the RAV4 EV won't be available any more, in current nor improved form, after my lease is up in 2017. So I won't be able to trade it for a new one. The last 600 or so RAV4 EVs will be built and delivered to customers well before then, and no other manufacturer is planning to come to market with a similarly-sized and priced CUV/BEV in the next couple of years. Which is a shame, because the CUV segment could very well be the market that propels BEV acceptance beyond a niche level. Time will tell.