Chris Dixon’s Mercedes EV (above) is astonishingly efficient, he said, pointing to its roughly 3-cent cost per mile | photos by Ruta Smith

Electric evolution

 During the height of the pandemic, my wife and I made a decision that today seems pretty dang well-timed. With our daughter turning 16 and needing a car for work and school and my wife still needing a commuter car for her job as an elementary school teacher, we decided to buy an electric car.

For my wife, the decision came easy. Even before gas prices skyrocketed, she was still pouring $50 into the tank of her 2008 Toyota Highlander hybrid every week and a half. She wanted to let our daughter take over the responsibility of paying for the Toyota’s gas and upkeep. In exchange, my wife wanted something she could plug into the house and drive around town. So we started looking at different electric vehicles, also known as EVs.

I was, however, a bit e-skeptical. Despite my conservationist claims, I’ve been a lifelong gas-hogging car junkie. In high school, my grandad helped me rebuild a rare, fire-breathing Corvette LT1 V8 engine that we dropped under the hood of my 1973 Monte Carlo. The gas gauge visibly dropped every time I floored the accelerator.

A young Chris Dixon (left) with his 1962 Cadillac coupe, circa 1987

After that came a 1962 Cadillac coupe whose tire-shredding 400 horsepower, 390-cubic-inch engine funded Saddam and the Saudis at 10 mpg. I followed that with a rare little German-built Ford — a turbocharged Merkur XR4ti. In Europe, the XR4 was the most successful touring race car ever built.

Eventually, my obsessions shifted to ’80s-era VW campers, and through the years, I would own six. I loved them. And I loved wrenching on them. But their unreliable engines barely managed 15 mpg.

Thinking starts to change

My thinking that hybrids were needlessly complex or not “real cars” began to change after buying the Highlander in 2011. I came to marvel at the fuel economy and reliability. And despite its age, the expensive lithium battery pack that drives its electric motor still works fine today at 150,000 miles. One day, during a routine service at Lex-Tech on Savannah Highway, I asked owner Glenn McAdory how many more years he reckoned we had in the battery pack. McAdory, who has worked on hundreds of Highlanders replied, “I don’t know. I’ve never had to change one out.”

After one too many VW breakdowns,  a 2016 Ford Transit van became my reliable family hauler. But alas, its fuel economy is even worse than our Vanagon.

The wakeup call

Not long before the pandemic hit, I took a trip to a Los Angeles hotel where the guest shuttles were Tesla sedans. When the hotel’s driver launched from zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds on Wilshire Boulevard, my mind was blown. I’d seen hilarious YouTube videos of Tesla acceleration reactions, but in person, the warp-speed acceleration was mind-bending.

On that same trip, I visited an old friend, and after a comparatively tame run in his chopped ’49 Mercury hot rod, we zipped to Lowe’s in his 2019 Chevy Volt plug-in-hybrid (PHEV). Like all PHEVs, it’s equipped with an electric motor and smaller battery than a pure EV. PHEVs can run shorter distances (generally 15 miles to, in the Volt’s case, 50 miles) purely on plug-in-charged electricity before switching over to hybrid gasoline operation.

My buddy could plug in the Volt at work and at home; solar panels fueled the car for free. Despite driving the car almost daily, “I haven’t bought gas in two months,” he said, “I don’t have an electric bill either.”

That was the wakeup call. 

Plug-in hybrid or pure electric?

Lacking the money for a Tesla, my wife and I went down a rabbit hole trying to determine what really made sense.

During the pandemic, when gas demand and prices were low, you could find an EV like a Nissan Leaf or a PHEV like a Volt for a remarkably low price — in some cases, well under $10,000. (Despite much higher overall car prices today, you can still find pretty good deals on these two cars specifically.)

In figuring out what we should consider, we reckoned long trips could still be taken with our Transit or Highlander, so the long range of a Tesla or a PHEV wasn’t really needed. What we needed was something that could mostly be charged at home — especially when we eventually would install our own solar panels on our house — and that wouldn’t break the bank.

Owning an EV is definitely a bit of a car junkie’s culture shock — there’s no need to check engine oil levels

We also looked at other costs. Electric cars have far fewer moving parts than gasoline models, and they don’t require maintenance like oil changes (no dipstick!). Registration would cost more, though. The S.C. legislature ensures EV owners don’t evade the gas tax that maintains state roads by charging $60 per year for EV registration (you pay $120 every two years). If you buy a new EV, you can get considerable federal subsidies of several thousand dollars.

The contenders

With all that established, we took a bunch of test drives.

First came a 2018 Nissan Leaf. It was fun to drive, and had a reasonable 107-mile range, but didn’t have the level of fit and finish my wife wanted. She was also used to driving the taller Highlander — a well-airbagged vehicle that simply felt solid and safe. Charleston is full of big-ass pickup trucks, and cars like the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and another candidate, the Ford Focus electric, were just too low to the ground.

We next looked at a couple of German cars. There was the VW e-Golf, a fairly uncommon if uninteresting version of the beloved Golf, and a funky little electric BMW called an I3. The BMW in particular was cool. It was fast. It felt solid. It only had 100 miles of range, but that was really all we needed. Its rear doors opened suicide-style like an old convertible Lincoln or a Honda Element to allow lots of stuff to be crammed inside. We seriously considered one, especially because there’s a version that comes with a tiny but range-extending gas engine for longer trips. But the deal killer: It only had four seat belts.

Some friends on the upper peninsula recently bought a 2019 Chevy Bolt hatchback. Now this thing was cool. Five seats. Fast as heck. And a huge range of nearly 250 miles on a single charge. But then we started hearing about battery fires and recalls. Damn! Scratch that. (Update: Through its recall, Chevy will now replace the battery pack on Bolts for free. So if you buy a used one, you now get even better range, a brand-new-eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty and a brand new, non-exploding, higher capacity battery pack good for up to 300 miles.)

The last car we wanted to test was
an upright little plug-in hybrid Ford called a C-Max Energi. It would only go 20 miles in pure electric mode, but a luxury 2017 Titanium model could be had for around $10,000. We drove one and it was nice — quiet and roomy and it seemed solid. It wasn’t particularly fast, but it got the job done — and on electricity alone.

Wait, a Tesla-powered Mercedes? 

We started leaning toward the C-Max until, one day on a whim, I Googled “Electric Mercedes.” The great oracle returned a hit with a vehicle we had never heard of — a handsome, tall-sided four-door hatchback called a B250e.

As I read further, it checked boxes. It seems  the “B-Series” is Mercedes’ answer to the VW Golf in the European market. The company doesn’t sell the petroleum-powered versions in the states, but in an interesting arrangement for its first electric foray, the storied German manufacturer decided to partner with Tesla in turning the B250 into a Tesla-powered, Tesla-battery hatchback. That sounded intriguing.

The car did have some apparent shortcomings. Unlike most EVs, it lacked a true fast-charge capability, meaning even if powered by a 240-volt (dryer or oven) outlet, a charge from near zero would take several hours. Plugged into a regular 120-volt wall outlet, a full charge from near zero could take a full day.

Also, the car’s uppermost range was right at 100 miles. Still, it was a Mercedes, and it had solid reviews on YouTube and in Car & Driver magazine. The 2017 model (the last year it was sold) also featured Mercedes’ collision avoidance and lane change warning systems.

Brand new, the car sold for nearly $41,000. But we could find a low-mileage model online for $16,000. So we located a reputable dealer in Virginia, had it conduct a Zoom video-tour of a beautiful little silver bullet and paid a Virginia Mercedes dealer $400 for a deep inspection. A few weeks later, a flatbed bearing the car arrived in our driveway.

Check out the 2017 Mercedes for yourself at bit.ly/mercedes-ev-review.

Incredible performance and economy

The Mercedes has simply turned out to be an incredible car. Car & Driver claims a zero-to-60 time of under 6.7 seconds. In “Sport” mode, I’ve seen 60 click by in just over five seconds. It handles wonderfully. It’s quiet, safe and roomy, with heated seats and a wicked cold air conditioner.

In the time since we bought the car, we’ve also installed solar panels on the roof of our home. The panels generate more electricity than the house uses, so we get credit from Dominion Energy for the excess power we create, and a good portion of that excess power fuels the car.

Cost-per-mile wise, the Mercedes is astonishingly efficient. According to Fueleconomy.gov, the car’s energy use is the equivalent of 84 mpg. In the real world, its actual cost-per-mile driven is also astonishingly low.

Around town, I’ve found that the Mercedes will drive roughly 3.5 miles on a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity. In Charleston, a peak time kWh costs 12-13 cents. So it costs 3-4 cents to drive it a mile. Our Ford Transit gets 14-15 mpg. At $5 per gallon, that works out to about 33 cents per mile. So it costs $3.33 to drive the Transit 10 miles. For the Mercedes, 10 miles charged at home costs 30-40 cents. With solar panels, I don’t see that cost at all. We did roll a monthly cost for the panels into our mortgage — of roughly half our normal previous electric bill. The panels will be paid off in about five years.

Once you get over the novelty of owning an electric car and get used to the quiet and crazy acceleration, an EV eventually becomes just a car. When my wife and I pass gas stations offering fuel at $5 per gallon, however, there’s a strange sense of freedom — especially if the car has charged during the day with the sun shining. It’s tough to describe — unless you actually own an electric car.

Is the Mercedes perfect? No. But it’s perfect for us. Despite a lifetime as a gasoline addict, I’m a changed man.


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