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Electric Vehicles Charge Ahead

Electric vehicles are becoming more popular, with more charging stations available, but the short range is holding them back.

by Ben Zigterman, The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana, Ill. / May 30, 2017

(TNS) -- CHAMPAIGN — In 2014, there were two local places for electric car owners to plug in.

Today, there are 17 charging stations at various hotels, grocery stores and parking lots in Champaign, Urbana and Danville, according to PlugShare's database of more than 500,000 stations.

Parkland payroll accountant Gwen Smith uses the station at the community college's Applied Technology Center every day to charge her Nissan Leaf.

"I was driving a minivan to and from Parkland and getting about 19 miles to the gallon," said Smith, who lives in Paxton. "So driving the Leaf has been awesome."

Her Leaf has about an 80-mile range, so the trip to and from Paxton works out well for her.

However, "we still have our minivan for longer trips," she said.

Electric vehicles are becoming more popular, with more charging stations available, but the short range is holding them back, especially around here, said Jim Kroll, executive manager at Napleton Auto Park.

"Most of the questions are about hybrids," he said. "We sell quite a few hybrids now. They're definitely here to stay. Electric cars really aren't going to catch on until they increase the ranges and bring the prices down."

Hybrids can fall back on gas if they use up their battery, and they're available for a wider variety of cars.

Besides the $68,000-and-up Tesla vehicles, which have a range of at least 200 miles, electric vehicles almost all have ranges less than 100 miles.

This has been improving, but a trip from Champaign to Chicago on one charge still isn't feasible for most electric vehicles.

That's all right for the cities of Urbana and Champaign, which both have one electric vehicle in their fleet.

Champaign has a Nissan Leaf that's used by its parking-enforcement staff, and Urbana has a Mitsubishi i-MiEV that's used by its recycling coordinator.

"It has a 60-mile range on a full charge," said Scott Tess, Urbana's environmental sustainability manager. "That sort of small-range car is great for a lot of the work that we do."

Besides the range, though, cost can often be a prohibitive factor.

Smith said she paid about $33,000 for her leaf, but that was before the incentives. Besides the federal government's $7,500 tax credit, she received $3,300 from the state. The state's rebate program is no longer available.

She also saves on operating and maintenance costs.

"It's got 50,000 miles on it, and I've had no major work done on it," Smith said.

On top of that, she feels better driving an electric vehicle.

"We're not overly environmentally conscious, but we feel better driving that car knowing we're not eating oil," Smith said. "I feel a lot better on my commute."

2018 models already available

Not even halfway through 2017, model-year-2018 cars are already being sold.

"Any day now, I'm going to get my first 2018 Honda Odyssey, and it's barely 2017," said Ben Quattrone, executive manager at Honda BMW of Champaign.

Quattrone said release dates vary by manufacturer and by car line. The main reason model years don't line up with calendar years is marketing, Quattrone said.

"They want to bring it out as early as possible," he said.

The release dates are often paired with marketing campaigns on TV. As a result, new model years used to begin in September or October. However, they've gradually crept earlier.

Car manufacturers are also facing pressure to meet fuel efficiency standards, which are based on model years, Quattrone said, so they'll try to maximize sales of the newest, more fuel efficient models.

Manufacturers typically redesign a line of cars every few years, so if there is a major redesign, the timing could depend on when the car is ready.

"If it takes a long time to develop, to retool the plant, and a long time to run out of parts, they'll do it based on timing," Quattrone said.

But when there isn't a major redesign, a new model year might not even mean that much.

"It almost doesn't mean anything, especially when two cars are the same," Quattrone said. "If the 2016 is the same as the 2017, why bring it out early, if only for some marketing reason."

©2017 The News-Gazette (Champaign, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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