Sunday, December 05, 2010

New Car Experiment

I just recently turned in my 2008 BMW 535i which I was leasing.  It was a fun car to drive when it wasn't having high-pressure fuel pump problems (I'll save that story for another post).  When I got the car, I went for the twin-turbo 6-cylinder because it got much better gas mileage than the prior 8-cylinder car I had been driving (real world for me was 23 vs. 17 mpg). 

As the end of my lease was nearing, I started thinking about what I could do to get even better mileage and whether I could get into the carpool lane too.  Several years ago, the state of California issued a limited number (85,000) yellow carpool stickers to consumers who purchased hybrid vehicles that got 45 mpg highway or better.  These stickers have been set to expire 3 times, and the final date now appears to be June 30th, 2011.  Since the last of them was issued long ago, the only way to get them is to purchase a used hybrid.  I was looking for something new that could handle the 18,000 miles a year I commute.

This led me to a few options.  There is another type of carpool sticker (white) which is available for cars which do not use gasoline at all.  These stickers are available in unlimited quantities and do not expire until 2015. In the mass market, these stickers are limited to all-electric cars and dedicated (vs bi-fuel) clean burning CNG (compressed natural gas) or LPG (liquid propane gas) vehicles.  Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would qualify too, but they are available in very limited numbers in just a few test markets.  It doesn't seem like they'll be mass market until 2015 or so.  You can see a full list of CA certified vehicles here.

Then, there's the issue of charging/refueling.  With a full electric vehicle like the Tesla Roadster or the upcoming Nissan Leaf, you need to make sure you have access to a charging station.  With a range of around 100 miles (or less), I could just barely make it to work and back.  And, my employer doesn't have charging stations at work yet.  Plus, unless you want to wait 12+ hours to charge, you need to purchase a home charging station for your garage and wire it up with a high amperage 220v circuit.  That's about $2,500 for the charging unit and installation. 

For CNG vehicles (like the Honda Civic GX - the only mass produced CNG vehicle available in the US), you have access to a larger number of refueling stations that can refuel your tank in about the time it takes to fill the gas tank in a regular car.  If you stick to the west coast, you could easily plan a long road trip by accessing a site like this to plot out refueling stations.  Not ideal, but with a range of about 200-250 miles per tank, doable.  Besides finding a refueling station, you can also purchase a home refueling unit.  The only viable consumer unit is the Phill by Fuelmaker. Purchasing and installing one of these in your garage will run you closer to $5,000.  The electric charging station qualifies you for a tax credit of 50% of the units cost up to $2,000.  The CNG unit qualifies for a $2,000 tax credit as well.

I also compared the cost of recharging an electric car vs. refueling a CNG vehicle.  In both cases you qualify for a discounted rate tier with PG&E (if they are your utility) and it works out to about $1.00/gallon of gas equivalent.  I won't go into what a gge is - click here if you want to learn more. 

In the end, I decided to go with the Honda Civic GX.  The Nissan Leaf looks interesting, but it's only available in limited numbers, has a long backlog of orders and I can't charge at work.  Plus, I don't particularly care for the styling.  I don't really love the look of the Civic either, but Honda has been making the Civic GX for 13 years now, and it seems to be solid and reliable.  It's really just a regular gas engine vehicle with a modified fuel tank and fuel delivery system to allow it to burn CNG. 

One benefit (besides the carpool stickers and cheaper gas) is that CNG burns much more cleanly than gasoline (source), and 90% of the natural gas we use in the US is produced domestically vs. imported (source).  I've talked to a few people about this so far, and the question I keep getting is about safety.  How safe is it driving around on a tank full of high pressure gas?  I looked into this a bit, and found many sources claiming that CNG is actually safer than gasoline.  I also ordered the home fueling unit, but haven't installed it yet.  I just picked up the car this weekend, so I'll have to post more about my ownership experience later.