Myth: Driving electric means accepting a worse driving experience
05.20.2020 - by Tom Saxton
Myth: Driving electric means accepting a worse driving experience

In 2006, my wife and I put down a deposit for a Tesla Roadster and started the long wait for production to begin. At the time, I was driving an Acura NSX and was a little nervous with the idea of replacing it with an electric car. We wanted to support the fledgling electric automaker, but the NSX was a sweet ride. Could I really give it up just to be nicer to the planet? In the fall of 2007, we had the opportunity to test drive a Roadster production prototype in the Bay Area hills near Alice’s Restaurant on a wonderful road twisting through the forest. Once behind the wheel, I was instantly taken by the sheer joy of driving electric: smooth, instant acceleration accompanied only by the sound of the tires grabbing the pavement and air rushing by, a pure visceral driving experience. After that, I couldn’t wait for the Roadster to arrive. After driving the Roadster for just a few weeks after it arrived in 2009, the NSX felt like a dinosaur. I’ve been hooked ever since.

In the years since, I’ve come to appreciate much more than the now well-known excitement of electric acceleration. The electric motor delivers smooth, instant torque from a full stop to freeway speeds, with no need for a transmission between the power and pavement. This has profound benefits in all driving situations.

Starting at zero

If you’ve ever driven up a steep hill with a stoplight, you’ve had to learn how to start without stalling. It’s quite a challenge with a manual transmission. An automatic transmission makes it easier to avoid stalling, but results in the car rolling backward until the engine speeds up enough to have the torque to power forward. That just leaves the issue of revving up fast enough that you don’t roll into the car behind you but slow enough that you don’t lurch forward and squeal the tires. There are countermeasures, using both feet with an automatic, or the handbrake with a stick, but let’s face it: the only reason drivers tolerate this is because it’s “normal.”

Driving electric upgrades normal. This whole hill-start problem goes away with an electric car. You have full torque available even from a stop. It’s very easy to get a smooth, slow start from a stop going up a steep hill. No problem. Well, there’s one problem left: when you’re behind a gas car you still have to wonder if they’ll get moving forward before rolling back into you.

Electric vehicles also do better starting on packed snow or ice. What you need is the ability to slowly increase torque so you start rolling without losing traction and spinning the tires. Electric motors do this very easily, much better than gas engines.

Accelerating to pass

When you push the accelerator on a gas car to pass on the freeway, there’s a delay before it responds. It’s short, but it’s there. The engine in all its piston-pumping mechanical glory needs to rev up and the transmission needs to shift gears. This takes time, not much, and I never really noticed it, until I tried doing a quick pass in an electric car. The response was immediate, startlingly so. After driving electric for several years, now I notice how sluggish gas cars are to accelerate.

Driving over the mountains

As you drive up a mountain in gas car, the combination of the slope and the speed often wants to run between two gears in the transmission. This causes the car to lurch every time it has to downshift to get just a little more torque to maintain speed climbing the hill, then shift up after gaining too much speed. An electric vehicle doesn’t have gears, it doesn’t have to shift to maintain torque, it just goes. Whether you’re maintaining speed manually or letting cruise control do it, that lurching and revving is totally missing from the electric driving experience.

The difference between gas and electric is even more pronounced on the downhill side. On a long, steep slope in a gas car, you have to cycle braking and coasting while your speed yo-yos up and down, or downshift and endure the whine of engine braking. In an electric car, regenerative braking works like engine braking, except the electric motor acts as a generator to charge the battery while holding your speed steady. Cruise control works beautifully both up and down the mountain, and on the downhill side you get free electricity charging your battery instead of heating up and wearing out your brake pads.

Fun, practical and affordable

Not every electric car has sports car performance, but they all share the significant advantages of an electric drive train and offer a better driving experience compared to a gas car with similar performance. There are now a wide variety of electric vehicles on the market, running the spectrum from practical cars starting around $30,000 up through performance monsters that handily beat gas cars costing twice, or ten times, as much. If you’re hesitating to go electric because you think you’ll be sacrificing driving experience, I urge you to go test drive one today.

Photo: Tom Saxton drag racing his Telsa Roadster at Portland International Raceways in 2010. Photo credit: Cathy Saxton

5 comments on “Myth: Driving electric means accepting a worse driving experience”
  1. VoltOwner says:

    My latest EV is my second Bolt EV. Last night I went up in the hills to see the NEOWISE comet. Just driving the curves, taking it easy, letting anyone who wanted to go faster pass at the pullouts… One of those cars was another Bolt, and it was moving! (I used to live on this particular road, so I do know how to make time on it.) After I found a spot for viewing the comet I could see a few miles of twisties and observed several cars navigating the corners. It was obvious which drivers knew how to drive corners, with the two most polar opposites being a Corvette and that same Bolt heading down. Tire squealing, loud exhaust and massive acceleration/braking typified the Corvette, while the Bolt simply did about the same speed with zero drama. I know which one I prefer…

  2. Terry Robb says:

    It is strange how so many in the Midwest do not want to accept new technology. Or they can not see that everyone with a gas car pays a lot especially when fuel price was in 2012. However there are lots of poor designs in engines of gas cars or thievery of caty converters. It looks like some do not like getting an electrician involved with level 2 charger in garage. I did not have that problem I am an electrician. Every electrician should own a Tesla and should have a deposit down for Rivian or CT. Time for PIA to send the EV message to all electricians

  3. Tom Houlden says:

    I agree 100% with the article, & with comments so far.

    I got a used Fiat 500e over 4.5 years ago. They’re now going for $6k.
    I’ve let several people drive it, & so far at least 5 of them that I know of have bought EVs. They have to DRIVE it though, not just ride, in order to feel the instant torque followed by constant, silent acceleration. I nearly always have to say “I don’t care if you get a ticket, but you know you’re going 70, right?”

    My prior car was no slouch (Toyota MR2) but even though its drag-strip numbers are better, real-world 500e acceleration is MUCH better. I’m now so spoiled that gas cars’ slight delay when passing always makes my heart skip a beat.

    It’s much easier to make yellow lights, but when I don’t, it’s also much easier to zip ahead when a light goes green, in order to make a driveway entrance from the left lane. Another unexpected benefit: Music isn’t interrupted by acceleration noise.

    A while ago a late-model Maserati pulled up beside me at a red light & challenged me to a race. I said “Sure! Let’s go!”. The light went green, I floored it, & blew his doors off so bad that I was half a block ahead by the time I backed off.

  4. Tom Cowley says:

    From my first electric car I was convinced that evs are the way to go.
    I have now owned 6 electric cars and they just keep getting better.
    They are way cheaper to operate too, I used to pay $50.00 for gas
    per week my whole electric bill is less than that, not to mention lots of free chargers.

  5. Cassandra Lista says:

    I’ve been driving an electric Smart Car for 7 years! I love my e-car. It costs considerably less to service and requires less service. And I am happy beyond words that I am not supporting environmentally damaging oil companies!!

    YAY for electric cars!!

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