Electric cars and hybrids: Silicon Valley vs Detroit

As consumers, we generally like choices. In the world of cleaner cars, those choices have been few and far between, but slowly that is changing.

I had a chance recently to test drive two of the cars whose creators are bent on changing the way we view transportation, a converted all electric Scion eBox by Silicon Valley startup AC Propulsion, and a Saturn Vue Greenline hybrid. Both were highly enjoyable. The first, with a $70,000 price tag and a $10,000 deposit, is clearly an EV targeted at Conspicuous Sustainability consumers. I guess then, that the Saturn Vue Greenline with a $24,000 price tag, is perhaps the hybrid for the rest of us.

One of my friends, who was considering buying an eBox invited me to take it for a spin up and down some of the San Francisco hills with him while he was test driving. I have to admit, coming down California Street into downtown, one of the City’s steeper hills, is an entertaining way to get used to the feel of regenerative braking on a true EV. I highly recommend it. For most of the drive I never touched the brakes. To stop you simply take your foot off the accelerator. And for those who have not driven an EV before the acceleration itself is phenomenal. Touch, and Go. Of course, with a $55,000 price tag for the EV conversion (you provide the Scion), limited range, and few electric charging stations, a purchase would be a hard call for me to make. The payback on fuel savings, many times the useful life of the car.

In contrast, General Motors (NYSE:GM) had given me a 2007 Saturn Vue to drive around for a week, to get the feel of it. If anything, GM is not known as an innovator of clean technologies. They are still tarred with the who killed the electric car brush by many environmentalists. That has only made it harder for GM to get out the message on things like its massive R&D effort in fuel cell cars, its push into flex fuel and ethanol with the Live Green Go Yellow campaign, and now hybrids. Having been to a number of their press luncheons on some of the new technologies they have been developing, I had some idea what to expect, but had not written about it before. The Vue is what is known as a mild hybrid, and its lack of bleeding edge, ultra green technology compared to a Prius had a few of my greener friends turning their noses up at it. But this didn’t really phase me after I drove it. As a car and SUV, I found it quite impressive. It handled wonderfully, was extremely quiet, and quite comfortable. You can feel the regenerative braking, but only as a slight tug, so besides the lack of noise, it is like driving any other SUV. Saturn bills it as getting the best highway gas mileage of any SUV, and the cheapest hybrid SUV on the market (not to mention a little quicker than the conventional Vue). Like all hybrids today, the payback is real, but not so great. At the average miles driven per year for most Americans we are talking 9 to 11 years or so compared to the standard Vue, according to my conversation with the Saturn people. If you happen to a real heavy commuter 25,000 to 30,000 miles per year type of thing, the payback may be down towards 5 or 6 years. In short, despite the c. 20 percent fuel savings, a consumer is looking at 120,000 to 150,000 plus miles before reaching a payback, depending on your assumptions, for this or almost any hybrid. The real payback, as always, comes from just buying a smaller car, hybrid or not.

What I love is that the Vue Greenline is really just the first in the Saturn line of hybrids and cleaner fueled cars. GM is basically planning on making virtually the entire Saturn line as green as can be. It is rolling out something like 8 new hybrids or hybrid versions of existing Saturn makes as we speak over the next couple of years. And at a $24,000 price tag, I could actually see buying one of these.

So whether you have the pocket books to look for full EV conversion or just a mild hybrid to make a small difference like the rest of us, the choice is there.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Author for Inside Greentech, and a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, and a blogger for CNET’s Green tech blog.