Recently, I parked my plug-in Prius near my daughter's camp in Cambridge, MA, and took the train into Boston for a normal work day. When I returned that evening, I was shocked to find my car smashed up! According to the police report on my windshield, some reckless driver had crashed into three parked cars, and mine got the worst of it. The insurance company deemed it a total loss and it agreed to pay us what it believed a 14-month-old plug-in Prius with 13,000 miles was worth.
Now, my husband and I were faced with an interesting challenge: do we buy a new 2013 plug-in Prius, a used 2012 plug-in Prius, or one of the new plug-in vehicle options that had come out since we had purchased our car?
Given that so many companies have been coming out with new models of plug-in vehicles, there were at least a few new cars to consider -- and I encourage folks to check out information about all the plug-in models on the market at the Sierra Club's new online EV Guide. We're usually a one-car family, and we take frequent long-distance trips throughout New England to visit family, so we wanted to stick with a plug-in hybrid. That meant the full battery electrics, such as the 2013 models of the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, Fiat 500E, Smart ForTwo electric, Rav4 electric, and Tesla Model S, were out. A few of these models, plus the Honda Accord plug-in hybrid, are not available in Massachusetts yet anyway.
Unfortunately, we also had to disqualify the 2013 Chevy Volt, which has been getting less expensive, despite rave reviews. You see, it only has four seats, and we have two kids plus frequent playdate additions.
That left the Ford C-MAX Energi, which I had been curious about since it first came on the market several months earlier. The Energi goes about 20 miles on electric charge, and then Car and Driver magazine says it gets about 32 mpg in hybrid mode for its next few hundred miles on the highway. I visited the Ford dealership of Watertown, MA, where they claim to be selling more hybrids and electrics than any other Ford dealership in New England. My salesman was excited to show me the cool features of the Energi, like its ability to train its drivers to break and accelerate more efficiently by giving a score (I got a 94 percent!). I really enjoyed the ride, and I liked that I was a little higher up than in the Prius.
Also, I knew my colleague Jesse Simons, who is Sierra Club's San Francisco-based Chief of Staff, was thrilled with his Energi. "My family loves our plug-in C-MAX Energi," Jesse said recently. "It looks cool, has amazing acceleration, can fit almost as much stuff as my old Subaru, and I love the fact that I'm driving a car made by union workers here in America. Not to mention the fact that I'm averaging 91 mpg and now only have to go the gas station every few months. I recently installed solar on my house, so I'm literally powering my car with sun on my roof. It feels like the future is finally here every time I get in my car."
For comparison, we looked back at the plug-in Prius, which we had put a lot of thought into before purchasing in the spring of 2012, and which we had been enjoying a great deal. We couldn't quite stomach the idea of purchasing a new one and spending all that extra money (above what the insurance was paying) just because someone crashed into our parked car. Would we even find any used ones available? Surprisingly, there were three for sale in our area, all with about 8,000-12,000 miles on them. Apparently, Toyota had been using these models to show off in their dealerships and to train their staff.
With help from Sierra Club's fantastic volunteer Dan Redmond, I did some number-crunching. First, I found that the plug-in Prius had lower emissions than the Energi, but let me be clear that this is only because of my family's specific driving patterns. We rarely drive more than 10 miles in a week-day (so nearly all electric Monday through Friday), but we take about 20 annual long-distance highway trips. That means that the hybrid mode mpg is really important to us, and the Prius gets about 50 mpg. For other people who may drive more like 15-20 miles a day and take infrequent long-distance trips, the Energi may actually be the environmental winner. You can figure this out for yourself for these or other cars by visiting the Department of Energy’s online vehicle calculator.
Then we looked at price, which I viewed from the perspective of both fuel and monthly loan payments (and factoring in the $3,750 tax credit we’d be eligible for with the new Energi). Fuel payments would be higher for us with the Energi (same reason as above re emissions, but again, this could be the opposite for someone else with different driving patterns). The monthly loan costs would be about the same as we had been paying for our last plug-in Prius and about $75 more than that a month for the Energi, not surprising when comparing a used versus a new car.
So, in the end, the choice that made sense for our family was to purchase another 2012 plug-in Prius. The downside had been the major hassle. The upside was the opportunity to consider the new exciting plug-in vehicles on the market in just the last year, including the appealing Ford C-MAX Energi. Another silver lining was getting a car with 4,000 fewer miles on it than our last one with no pretzels and glitter stuck in all the crevices (yet).
-- Gina Coplon-Newfield is Sierra Club’s Director of Future Fleet & Electric Vehicles Initiative. Sierra Club volunteer Dan Redmond contributed to this article.