Electric Cars' Secret Advantage: They're Just Nicer To Drive

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2012 Ford Focus Electric, New York City, April 2012

2012 Ford Focus Electric, New York City, April 2012

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Plug-in electric cars are now on sale from several carmakers, and their sales will rise slowly over the next decade.

Right now, most of the marketing for those electric cars focuses on green themes or cost savings on the gasoline drivers don't have to buy.

But there's one factor no electric-car maker has yet used to market cars powered by electric motors:

They're just nicer and more fun to drive.

First, the numbers: Recent Ford research says if electric cars cost the same as gasoline cars, 60 percent of buyers would consider one.

But if the financial breakeven point were eight years, that number falls to 8 percent. And depending on the assumptions you use, many electric cars don't deliver even an eight-year payback today.

Nonetheless, ads for electric cars tend to focus either on the moral benefits of zero emissions (e.g. polar bears hugging Nissan Leaf owners) or higher gas-mileage numbers for plug-in cars with gasoline motors too (e.g. recent Chevy Volt TV ads--including one that neglects to note that you plug it in).

Nissan Leaf 'polar bear' ad

Nissan Leaf 'polar bear' ad

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But here are the reasons that electric cars have a secret advantage:

  • Tons of torque: Electric motors develop their peak torque (or "turning force") from 0 rpm, meaning that the cars they propel tend to have great acceleration from a stop.
  • Sounds of silence: When electric-car makers suppress or silence the motor whine, electric cars are remarkably quiet--so much so, regulations will require them to emit noise at low speeds.
  • Smooth, calm, vibration-free travel: A reciprocating gasoline engine vibrates constantly, changing as it revs up and slows down; transmissions make their own noises as they match a narrow band of engine speed to road speed over four to nine different ratios. Electric cars don't need any of that.

Anyone who spends a day in an electric car, then returns to one with a combustion engine, will suddenly become aware of all kinds of noises and vibrations we've trained ourselves to ignore as part of normal driving.

Seriously: Try it. Rent an electric car for a day and drive it around.

You'll notice that it's smooth, quiet, and punchy off the line. Sure, you may experience range anxiety, but no matter what the car is, you'll get 25 miles of electric range, maybe as much as 80 miles. That's enough.

Angry Driver with Road Rage

Angry Driver with Road Rage

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Then jump right back into whatever you drive.

Notice the rising and falling sounds? Feel the vibrations in the car and through the controls that carmakers take such pains to muffle?

There's one final benefit: A smoother, calmer, quieter car may just produce a calmer, quieter driver who's less prone to aggressive driving and road rage. Which would be a very good thing.

Anecdotally, electric-car drivers report being calmer during frustrating commutes--but confident that their cars' torque will give them a quick spurt of acceleration if they need it.

So while we may not see it for several years yet, eventually one adventurous electric-car maker will launch an ad campaign something like the following.

Our new electric car: Faster. Punchier. Quieter. Smoother. BETTER.

You saw it here first.


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Comments (58)
  1. I drive a Volt.

    I definitely notice a difference v. the other household car.

    There is been so much talk about breakeven analysis without factoring in whether an ICE engine is comparable to a Electric Car.

    I personally feel that my Volt is much closer to a BMW than a Cruze in terms of drive experience.

    Also, I wonder how many skeptics have LCD TVs? What is the breakeven on an LCD TV v. a tube TV?

  2. What's a tube TV?

    Back to the subject at hand, yup, the quiet and smooth take off of my daughters Prius from a stoplight is heady stuff. I'm starting to like electric and/or hybred cars more and more.

  3. Spot on John!

    I am almost anti-green. I believe the entire edifice of CO2 panic is a scam.

    I drove the Renault Fluence ZE for 2km on a closed track and instantly felt the kind of smooth power I've only ever felt in much fancier cars. Nobody is pushing this angle. I honestly feel this takes the Fluence ZE way out of its price point, especially here in Israel. The power around town cannot be believed until you try it.

  4. People who believe we can belch as much pollution into the air as we'd like with no consequence really confound me. They are turning a blind eye to many many disturbing things happening in front of them - such as all of the glaciers receding, the polar ice caps disappearing (thousands of walrus have hit the mainland for the first time because they can't find ice to breed on), no snow in Minnesota this winter (what! Minnesota!), the list goes on. Just because it's a slow process and people lose interest doesn't mean it's a hoax. But whatever one's reasons, we should be focussing on these cool cars anyway.

  5. Please don't misunderstand me: I exhale CO2 with ever breath, that is why I don't consider it a serious pollutant. It's around 0.04% of the atmosphere and was before we started adding any.

    All the other stuff coming out of cars is terrible and I rather feel that by focusing on the one that comes OUT of my kids lungs maybe we've dropped the ball on the far worse things. We made huge strides with lead free and cat converters and I presume diesels are a better than before but all we hear about is CO2 CO2 and CO2.

    As to warming: I've recently started to believe we're responsible for a small change to climate but nothing as large as natural perturbations that came before us.

  6. Sorry, but we will need an independent judge of whether or not your breath is a serious pollutant :)

  7. It's the methane at the other end you want to avoid.

  8. I never realized how annoying transmissions are until I test drove an EV for the first time. I love the feel of a transmission free drive, theres no more jerkiness from gear changes the car is just smooth all the way up to your desired speed. I have an eight-speed trans in my current car, and I can tell you it hates slow speeds. Sure the eight speeds saves me gas but you can feel every gear, it's not harsh it's just an annoyance once and a while.

  9. I'd like to add a question. Has anyone noticed how crappy gasoline engines are getting? With all the gas saving devices being added gasoline cars are starting to sound clunky, theres an increase in turbo lag, and automatic stop/start makes you feel like your car has stalled, unless it's a hybrid. Gasoline cars seem like they're being choked to death, and electric cars seem like they're restoring our cars ability to breath.

  10. This has been my argument all along. I agree 100%. I've always believed that global warming is a hoax and that the monetary savings are, more or less, largely not there (yet). But the car just drives better.

  11. In Israel, for sure, Better Place is cheaper. It will take a while for conservative Israelis to try something new (huge resistance) but people will notice and they'll do the maths. Admitdly at $8 per gallon, it's very different maths, but all of Europe pays that or more for gas.

    I'm going to shock a few people with this car. There are going to be fancy BMWs and Mercs at traffic lights all over Tel Aviv scratching their heads. I will never have to worry or stretch range: normally I'll be within 30km of home and on long trips I'll need a switch anyway, makes no difference if I arrive at 40% or 30% and I have prepaid the electricity!

  12. "I'm going to shock a few people with this car. "
    Interesting choice of words for an electric car.

  13. Saying the performance is electrifying is just too cliché don't you think?

  14. I got a charge out of it.

  15. I guess those melting glaciers are just ignoring the rules of temperature and are melting for no reason. The incidence of deaths from c.o.p.d. are no hoax and are increasing.There is plenty of good to be gained by cleaning up the air,soil and water....but not with our lungs.

  16. Clairvoyance is apparently one of John's claimed abilities. One would have to be so to predict the future sales of electric cars, which, in turn, depends 98% on the future cost of batteries. So, John, when will we see $125 per kilowatthour batteries? By my reckoning, at that point, or somewhat before, electric cars will
    render gas powered vehicles totally obsolete. John is apparently predicting a slow battery cost reduction. I think it will occur
    as a result at one (or more) of the several battery research efforts and that the price drop will be precipitous. I guess that in ten years (or, in my view, much less time) we will know which of us has the correct view of the future. I'm betting on me (and Toyota, DBM-Energy, and some others).

  17. Not clairvoyance at all, Kent. We call it interviewing. I'm pretty sure I've pointed you to this one before, but here it is again: the article I wrote on the consensus among battery analysts that price will fall 6 to 8 percent per year for large-format Li-ion cells. Read it:

  18. Indeed!

    Another secret: cost of ownership (let's hope).


  19. Little noticed was the recent ability of ZENN Motors to raise several million from private investors to keep the company (which offers no products or services) from going belly up. ZENN's only asset is their marketing agreement with EEStor, the super capacitor company that has been considered a failure for many months now by those in the business. So exactly what info did ZENN (or EEStor) provide those investors that made them want to back a company many think is a scam? One can hope. EEStor issued a statement that they will be providing more info in the future about their progress. One can hope ....

  20. Yeah, Kent, brilliant logic... You attack John V. (and yes, attack is accurate given your unnecessarily rude opening) for using informed industry sources, then you turn around and use a purely speculative example that proves absolutely nothing at this stage. Whether or not you believe John's comments, that's the evidence you want to use...?!?!

    Wow, several million dollars? Even Fisker and CODA can raise money, Kent. Is your point supposed to be this is the proof that your concept of battery cost improvement is better?

    Again, wow...! Keep hoping, though...

  21. This is right on the mark. Even higher-end ICE cars feel rough, unrefined and primitive to drive once you are used to driving electric. I have no intention of ever going back to a car with a primary ICE engine.

  22. Although not all-electric, I have been driving a Prius since 2010 and have gotten so used to the silence (and gas savings) that when I have to rent a standard combustion engine vehicle it seems annoyingly obnoxious! With the expense to frequently fill up, high vehicle noise, and the overpowering smell of emissions forcing me to use AC rather than just have the window down and enjoy the spring air when at a stop, I miss my Prius immediately.

    When other people ride with me in my Prius they always comment on how quiet it is to ride in and find it fascinating. I see most, if not all, new vehicle models being released as hybrids and EVs within the next 1-2 decades.

  23. I was driving a friend to a conference downtown using a freeway in my Prius V and we were late. Very little traffic, Sunday morning. At one point he nervously pointed out that we were doing 104 mph - I hadn't noticed. Car noise didn't give us a clue.

  24. The silent and vibrations free ride is certainly one of the things that attracts me to electric motoring. So why don't the carmakers make a bigger deal out of it? Probably because the lack of sound and vibrations for many people means the car is less sporty, less alive, more like an appliance. That doesn't work for carmakers used to sell their products on emotions.

  25. Or maybe, to promote the smooth silence of their EV's is to point out the inferior ride of their ICE's. Except for pure EV makers like Coda and Tesla.

  26. As a Car Salesman, i have the opportunity to drive several different kinds of cars daily including Cadillac's, Volvos, BMW's etc. they may be expensive cars, but they all SUCK when comparing the driving experience to my Leaf.

  27. Once again, the mechanics of the "payback" period between gas/electric needs to be examined because i dont see 8 years being valid. my 2010 Prius which only has a sunroof/heated seats as a feature over my 2011 Leaf MORE expensive than my Leaf so the payback in my case is negative Infinity?? unless gas drops to under $1.28 a gallon, this is my situation. so, ok we dont want a Prius, the top of the line Focus is $24K plug tax. no sales tax in WA for EV so the smaller Focus could be had for $2000 less dollars which btw would be recouped in less than THREE years when considering gas costs.

  28. At the rate of saving $2500 annually in fuel cost ($300+ gas/month versus less than $100 extra electricity/month), my Leaf (after $7500 federal credit + $5000 CA rebate) will be FREE in 10-year. I don't know of any car out there that can claim that kind of return on the initial $25,000 "investment". And that's assume gas price will stay at $4/gallon for 10-year. Chance are gas will be $5 - $6 and for every $1 per gallon increase, my ROI is shorten by 2 years. Adding that to the selling slogan, you will feel great saving money for every mile you drive!

  29. Great piece.
    I would like to add that the difference in the noise starts when you start the car. ICE cars make an annoying sound when they start.

    Building on Voelcke's marketing plan, how about having a video cutting back and forth between an EV driver and an ICE driver showing all the difference in noisiness and jerkiness. At the end of the video, the EV driver seems to arrive refreshed looking and the ICE driver looks worn out.

  30. This is so true. The quiet, smoothness and tons of torque really make a big difference. I am driving mine around hilly North San Diego county and it's blast.
    I knew I liked driving it, but didn't have my finger on why until I read this article.

  31. I forgot to mention - I drive a LEAF.

  32. When determining the "payback" of an EV over its gas-burning equivalent, there is more to consider than merely gas savings. For instance, EVs offer the following advantages:

    The ability to drive on 100% domestic renewable energy instead of 50% foreign oil; using an energy source over which we will never fight a war; smooth, powerful, quiet driving; no longer polluting the air of others with contaminants shown to cause death and disease for thousands of Americans every year; keeping your money local instead of sending it out of state and out of the country; virtually no maintenance required.

    If all you consider are the gas savings, you would have to assign zero value to these great attributes. Those of us who drive EVs do value these

  33. >"Our new electric car: Faster. Punchier. Quieter. Smoother. BETTER.

    You saw it here first."

    Here first? That's what Tesla does all the time. Once more I get the impression that you guys have not even read the Model S pages on Tesla's website. Or that you forgot what you read there. ;)

    Just two examples:

    "Tesla’s advanced electric powertrain delivers exhilarating performance. Unlike the internal combustion engine with hundreds of moving pieces that spark, pump, belch, and groan, the Tesla motor has only one moving piece: the rotor. As a result, Model S acceleration is instantaneous, like flipping a switch."

    "sound dynamics of a recording studio"

    I think http://www.teslamotors.com/models/features by itself covers most of your points.

  34. > "But there's one factor no electric-car maker has yet used to market cars powered by electric motors:

    They're just nicer and more fun to drive."

    Umm. Just noticed this sentence. Does Tesla not register as an "electric-car maker", or are you trying to provoke a certain group of your readership? ;)

  35. @Norbert: Fair point, but I was really referring to mass-market makers.

    Unless or until Tesla begins volume production of its Model S electric sedan--which it says will happen by the end of this year, but has not yet begun--it's a startup carmaker with high aspirations that has sold no more than 2,600 cars over 5 years.

    The article was intended more for the Nissans, Chevies, Fords, etc. who have cars that are aimed and marketed toward the mass market.

  36. Hoping the generations for cars after the Roadster 1 and 2, Model S, Model X, Roadster 3.0 that Tesla will be able to mass market their car at the $30k range they talked about. I agree however, current car manufacturers seem to be scared to advertise all the truths about an electric car. Almost like they are afraid the "wrong" people will realize what's going on and stop them before "this whole electric car thing catches on!"

  37. The car companies are completely schizophrenic on EVs. They are THE biggest and most directly dependent industry on oil as a fuel. They are caught in a trap with EVs.

    Nissan/Renault seem to be ahead in accepting the inevitable future: perhaps this is because Japan is more prescient in seeing what damage has been done with the complete monopoly on transport granted to oil. For sure the interests of big oil and motor vehicle companies are far closer in the US and the EU.

    Whatever the reason, they're gonna be dragged to it because companies like Tesla will start eating their lunch otherwise as it's clear that EVs are now practical and economic to build and sell.

  38. "The article was intended more for the Nissans, Chevies, Fords, etc. who have cars that are aimed and marketed toward the mass market."

    They haven't succeeded yet in getting into the mass-market, in spite of selling below cost, and I think it is premature to use that as a yardstick. It is a somewhat frustrating experience for both the companies and those who observe what is happening in this sector. It makes it difficult to perceive the sales numbers as they success which they are in themselves, and the enjoyment of the drivers gets lots in the debate of sales numbers.

    BTW, Tesla is also selling power trains to Daimler and Toyota, and including the Roadster, there are now more than 5,000 cars on the road which use Tesla technology.

  39. Typos corrected here: It makes it difficult to perceive the sales numbers as the success which they are in themselves, and the enjoyment of the drivers gets lost in the debate of these sales numbers.

  40. Norbert: The Toyota RAV4 EV is not in production yet, so I'd put it at roughly 4,000 Tesla powertrains. That compares to roughly 30,000 Nissan Leafs globally, and more than 12,000 Volts/Amperas.

    But that's not the point. The point is that Nissan and GM are both producing plug-in cars in volume on their own assembly lines. Tesla is not yet doing so. Electric-car advocates hope they will soon start--and many fervently believe they will--but as of today, they are not yet doing so.

  41. @John > "The Toyota RAV4 EV is not in production yet, so I'd put it at roughly 4,000 Tesla powertrains."

    I don't think that number contains RAV4 EVs at all. In any case, the number 5,000 is from the 2011 annual shareholder's report so I'd consider the possibility that it might perhaps be correct.

    As far as communicating the fun of driving EVs is concerned, this doesn't take large sales volumes or mass market advertising campaigns. It is obviously an eternal truth. ;-)

  42. Norbert: Tesla's 2011 annual report, really? OK, shoot me a link and I'll stand corrected. And we agree, it wouldn't include any RAV4 EVs.

  43. Since this was directly addressed to shareholders, I'm not sure whether it would be correct to post the link here, although it is available elsewhere and accessible to you (to everyone). But I think it is fair if I list some details here, for EVs with Tesla technology:

    As of 2011, over 2,100 Roadsters, 2,100 Smart fortwo EVs, 500 Mercedes-Benz A-Class EVs, an unspecified number of Freightliner electric delivery vans, in 2012 probably hundreds of Roadsters mostly outside the US (total production was limited to 2,500 and completed in Jan 2012), and possibly others as I don't know if this list is complete. For each, at least battery pack and chargers.

    The summarizing statement was "over 5,000 Tesla-powered electric vehicles on the road".

  44. There are more comments in this thread
  45. "You must bThere's one final benefit: A smoother, calmer, quieter car may just produce a calmer, quieter driver who's less prone to aggressive driving and road rage. Which would be a very good thing" Actually, I'm now less concerned about my calm as an EV driver and more concerned about the road rage I'm liable to encounter from those big car ICE guys who are totally pissed off at my Fluence ZE beating them out of the traffic light, but that doesn't stop me from being electric and proud of it and beatin' them from the start!

  46. You've omitted that EV's cost less to maintain, there aren't all the parts that a gas powered or even hybrid has to maintain, and you save time not having to bring in your car as often for maintenance.

  47. Car manufacturers spend a lot of time and money on research to reduce NVH. (Noise Vibration and harshness) electric motors are nearly silent when running and completely stopped when at a trafic light so there is no drone of an ideling engine like in a gasoline powered car. In fact electrics need to isolate road sound better than a gasoline engine does because road sounds are more noticeble since there is no underlying white noise of an engine running to hide this.

  48. except when you cant find a plugin

  49. EVs like Leaf, or modern marvels like Volt have better pay backs than BMW, Mercedez, Lexus, Infiniti or anything Jaguar has to offer...

  50. I always wanted to drive an S class Mercedes or big Lexus for the hushed cabin just to see what it was like. I could never justify owning one though.

    I just did a little research and saw that the Leaf is quieter than both of these cars at "idle" and very close to both at wide open throttle and only slightly noisier than both at 70mph cruise (I cruise at 65 on the hwy). That means I have the noise level of a $70k or 90K car for only $27K. I would imagine that the Leaf is smoother than both since it has no engine. Fabulous!

    @idle @WOT @70mph
    Leaf 36.7db 67.7db 67.7db
    S550 48db(!) 66.0db 62.0db
    LS460 37.2db 68.3db 62.5db

  51. Not many people can relate to polar bears or melting ice caps, but people can relate to fast, great looking cars with plenty of power and torque. The electric car ads need to focus on what people can relate to (like drag racing, burnouts, drifting etc) and not on some abstract detail such ice caps or some animal they have only seen on the Discovery Channel or in books.

  52. Having drove a Ford Escape Hybrid for about 50,000 miles.. I HATE IT.. to get any power out of it at all, you had to keep the stupid thing floored, taking away the benefit of it being a hybrid. I'll NEVER buy a Hybrid/electric vehicle and unless you only live in a city and never go out for a road trip, stay away from them.

  53. "Our new electric car: Faster. Punchier. Quieter. Smoother. BETTER."

    Bingo! So true. After driving my Nissan Leaf for several months, I had to take a 600-mile trip in our Subaru Outback. I was shocked at how "primitive" it seemed, with its engine noises, gear shifting, braking, and handling. And to think I used to consider it one of the best cars I'd ever owned. The Leaf now wins that contest hands down. It was actually a relief to return home and drive it again.

  54. The first time I drove a Volt, I was smitten by it's smooth, quiet, and lively "propulsion." It was George Jetson's land vehicle.

    I recently got a chance to drive what is considered by many to be the ultimate sports car: the Porsche Boxster. It was a totally different experience: loud, annoying, grinding of parts and vibrating seats and the steering wheel. The primitive thing seemed to want to self-destruct. It was for me the assurance that petroleum powered vehicles with transmissions were on the skids and will soon be replaced by fantastic and superior EV's.

  55. Yes, I did buy the Volt and can sit new back and relax and hear the subtleties in my music at 70 MPH, while getting 150 MPG.

  56. YUP!

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