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Gas At Record High, But Will Drivers Plug Into Electric Cars?

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Chevy Volt electric car. (CBS)

Chevy Volt electric car. (CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – Drivers are now paying more for gasoline in Chicago than ever before–an average of $4.44 a gallon–and some are looking at alternatives to save money.

More Americans are plugging into the idea of an electric car–the kind that charge up like a giant iPod for about two dollars. However, few in Chicago know if it’s really practical to own one, CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reports.

This past winter, the editors at cars.com purchased two fully loaded electric vehicles–a Chevy Volt for $43,000 and the Nissan Leaf for $36,000. They found our flat Midwestern landscape helped the cars perform near the top of their promised range of 50 miles per charge.

“With any car that has a plug, we figured it’s not just about how it feels for a couple days of driving,” said Joe Weisenfelder, of cars.com. “Actually our terrain in the Chicago area favors cars like these cause they tend to lose efficiency on hills.”

Though their extra weight helped them handle well in winter snow and ice, the cold conditions also strained their electric batteries, requiring more frequent charges and dropping their promised range to as low as 26 miles.

“The electricity is needed for heat not just for range, and the battery itself is colder. When it’s colder, it has less capacity,” Weisenfelder said.

A daily pain for Chicago drivers, our incredible traffic, actually turned out to be a plus for electric cars. The vehicles tended to perform best in the low speeds found in heavy traffic.

“When other gas cars are sitting and burning their gasoline — you are waiting till the next time you go with an electric car,” Weisenfelder said

Chicago’s Loop has some 50 charging stations, so powering up downtown was much easier than in the suburbs. However, with so few of these cars available for sale, cost conscious drivers should remember many of these cars are selling beyond their asking price.

“I don’t think there’s a savings just yet — even as gas prices get high,” Weisenfelder said. “Maybe someday cars like this will make a difference, but it’s not happening just yet.”

The conclusion, at least from the editors at Cars.com is that these cars make sense if you want to be environmentally conscious–but for right now they are not necessarily the best way to compensate for high gas prices.

Preorders are being taken for both the Volt and the Leaf in Chicago, with the car-makers promising they’ll be available by the end of the year. However, you can travel to other states–mostly on the East and West coasts–to purchase them now.

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