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April 21, 2013

News & Features

Tricks to get maximum mileage from hybrids, EVs

Special to NWautos

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(Thinkstock)


It's a no-brainer that electric vehicles get great mileage compared with cars powered by internal-combustion engines. Even so, many drivers of EVs and plug-in hybrids tweak their driving habits to achieve longer ranges on a single charge.

Though some techniques are unique to specific cars, others can be applied to gas-powered vehicles as well, enabling anyone to squeeze more miles out of their fuel — whether gas, diesel or electricity.

Steven Lough, president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association, isn't exactly a poster boy for EV "hypermiling" (driving with the intention of maximizing mileage). He describes himself jokingly as a "testosterone-filled 69-year-old," and loves proving that electric vehicles are more fun to drive than gas-powered cars. He says he likes to goose the accelerator of his 2012 Mitsubishi i EV at stoplights and tear along the freeway at 70 mph.

He admits that both of these actions, though enjoyable, reduce his car's range, which can vary from 40 to 75 miles per charge. So the first rule of thumb, Lough counsels, is "not to be so aggressive, not showing off at every stop sign, which I do quite a bit of."

He also advises using a soft foot on the accelerator and keeping freeway speeds around 60 mph (fuel-saving techniques that work on any car). Lough says that using the eco-mode of an electric car helps. This reduces the performance of the motor, extending the range of the batteries.

Another thing he says he can do to save power is not turn on the air conditioner, cabin heat or heated seats, which run off the batteries and lower the range.

"The radio, lights and wipers are negligible," he says about their battery-sucking abilities. "But the air conditioning and heating are the biggies." When you add the energy-sapping power of heating with the reduced performance of the batteries in cold temperatures, the range of Lough's Mitsubishi in winter is around 30 percent less than it is in summer, he says.

All-electric vehicles that use lithium batteries (such as those from Mitsubishi, Ford and Tesla) appear to get more range when their batteries are drawn down to a low state of charge before recharging, according to Lough and other experts. In other words, frequently topping off a slightly discharged battery may reduce its range as well as its service life. It's best to let it drain down to about 30 percent of its charge, and then plug it in before making a longer trip.

With plug-in hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt, however, frequently plugging in can keep the vehicle running without having the gas engine turn on.

Dr. Peter McGrath, a cardiologist who lives in Kirkland, drives a Volt to his office at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System's Seattle facility. "I try not to get too compulsive about it," he says, "but it is kind of fun seeing what you can squeeze out of one battery charge."

As Lough experienced with his Mitsubishi, McGrath's range varies depending on the outside temperature, his driving style and the number of accessories he uses.

"My commute is 24.5 miles down I-405 and I-90, and 21 miles back up I-5 and Bothell Way," he says. "In the summer, with none of the accessories on, I've gotten up to 52.1 miles on a charge. But during the winter, it gets as low as 26-28 miles due to the electric current expended on all the accessories like swipes, climate controls, lights and battery heaters."

He says he can eke out more miles per charge by anticipating and avoiding traffic jams, as well as using the car's regenerative braking system, which pumps electricity back into the battery when decelerating. He also takes advantage of the topography, choosing routes that let his Volt regenerate electricity on downhill sections.

Although he can't plug in at work, which would reduce his gas consumption considerably, McGrath says that for most of his commutes he's "averaging about 120 miles to the gallon, which isn't too bad."

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