The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) just completed its fifth annual Eco-Run, an “event that shows off a variety of eco-friendly vehicles,” says AJAC’s website; this was my fourth. A laudable enough event, the “purpose of the Eco-Run is to help inform consumers of these alternative options.”
So AJAC’s auto-journalist members gently compete in a sort of un-rally, with everyone allegedly driving in an eco-conscious way.
This year there were 27 vehicles as different as chalk and cheese – everything from electric vehicles (EVs) to finely tuned lightweight sports cars to diesel pick-ups. Each had its own bank of reasons for claiming ecological superiority over its competitors and/or predecessor. There were also 27 auto writers driving these cars – though this group was fairly homogeneous. Each was asked their top three preferred rides, then assigned vehicles to drive and write about. Most requested time in the Porsche Carrera.
Part One: Play-by-Play
The journey began near Toronto’s Pearson Airport and finished at Ottawa’s city hall, not a great distance driving directly. But we traveled gingerly in short legs, meandering through those picturesque Victorian lakeside towns in southeastern Ontario, allowing extra time for the EVs to juice up. It took two long days and four nights with hotel stays bookending early openings and late finishes.
So Day One functionally began on Day Two. Eco-Run’s first leg started at 6:30am from a Pearson Airport hotel. The reason was to avoid the legendarily ugly Toronto rush-hour traffic. (Range anxiety in an EV is about more than distance; an unplanned extra hour in cementing 401-congestion has the same effect on your blood vessels.) Venturing just 30 km from northwest Toronto to the Evergreen Brickworks in the Don Valley, we did beat the traffic monster – arriving at 6:50am for a 9am press conference. Coffee please.
What a shame this first “leg” lasted just 20 minutes because I’d been assigned my first choice. The Fiat 500 1957 Edition features the retro look of the original, complete with hubcaps matching the paintjob and that fancifully mustachioed retro fascia. It’s the sort of looks that inspire smiles or snarls. One writer dismissed it as ‘Italian hand luggage’; another didn’t want to give it up after their leg. Without needing to test its guts, I managed to exploit the 500’s Euro-smallness to weave between the 401’s daily parade of boneheads and idiots.
The Brickworks is one of these interesting “third-way” style charity projects that gives you hope for our choking cities. Located a mere four kilometres from Yonge and Bloor (or just three kilometres as your dirty urban pigeon flies), it’s an oasis of rustic quiet and sustainability beside one of the most ecologically vile roads in the country. The press conference featured a local member of the provincial parliament quoting numbers about a supposedly imminent downtown relief subway line. Torontonians have heard it all before; I expect that the relief line is coming soon but only to another press conference near you.
The second leg covered 65km to the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in northern Oshawa (UOIT). I was assigned the Kia Optima LX ECO Turbo. It’s a lithe ride whose steering felt better and better the faster it got. Tempting as it was to push the Optima hard, the purpose of Eco-Run was to be gentle and milk the mileage: more Eco-Creep.
UOIT is where good gearheads go after they die, containing some the most robust and sophisticated vehicle-testing equipment on the continent. Imagine a Bond villain’s evil lair populated by nerdy young engineers in lab coats instead of supermodels in cocktail dresses (though if you prefer dwelling on the latter, this is a judgment-free article). The wind-and-weather tunnel blows at hundreds of kph, from sub-Arctic to Equatorial, from parched to steam-room extremes, while its floor rotates to mimic yaw. Another room, soundproofed enough to silence a jumbo jet at a Motörhead concert, contains a multi-directional shake table, which, yes, shakes. But very, very hard. It can simulate earthquakes. So you strap pieces of equipment to it and shake the shit out of them, then measure the results: aka heaven for gearheads.
Leg Three took us to a colon-jamming BBQ lunch. We tootled 70 km east to Cobourg, Ontario where we needed to kill over two hours exposed on a pier in unseasonably intense heat while the EVs re-charged.
For this third drive of the day, I was assigned the Lexus RX 450 hybrid. I’m normally not much of an SUV lover but the 2010 once saved my family’s life. During a Vermont blizzard, about 90 percent of the vehicles spun off the road, colliding in ditches. The RX 450h gripped and navigated us safely. So the opportunity to drive its later iteration in opposite conditions offered good distraction and contrast.
The RX 450h’s dark brown paint did little for energy preservation in summer but the fan – intentionally unaided by A/C to preserve juice – circulated air throughout this large vehicle well. The controls are easy to understand. The switch from hybrid to gas power wasn’t detectable. The improvement of green-ish tech is a theme we’ll explore later in our journey. Right now, it’s time for ice cream to beat the Cobourg heat and sluggish clock.
The last stage of the day, from Cobourg to Belleville, Ontario, began in frustration because I misread directions and was lost for five minutes: more than enough time to blow my numbers and not qualify for Eco-Run’s vaunted ‘Green Jersey’. (If you’re able to find one on eBay, it’ll go for several dollars.) Luckily, I was driving my second choice from the list of 27: the Smart Fortwo cabriolet. Tiny and bright, it utterly contrasted with the Lexus SUV, demonstrating the flexibility of eco-friendly definitions. The route avoided the 401 mostly, so I could enjoy the open roof and windows. The upgraded drivetrain of the new Smart is a huge improvement. There’s no longer any judder between shifting gears. I also like its charmingly pugnacious new face. The effect is like seeing a baby in a football uniform.
[That night we all went to the Mustang Drive-in for some diversion, about a 30-minute drive away. However the clocks were off and, untethered, most of the competitive auto journalists made the journey in nearly half the time: Eco-Sprint.]
Day two began in the Ford C-MAX Energi Plug-In Hybrid. What’s interesting about this technology is that you can choose not to plug it in – but if you do keep it charged, you can stay in electric mode permanently. This funky hatchback provides an excellent, grippy ride and was roomier than I’d expected.
The route took us through more rural towns on Highway 2 to blue-collar Kingston. (You’re thinking of The Tragically Hip and Don Cherry right now, aren’t you?) Remember the day before, how our stops were thematically appropriate green space and high-tech labs for innovating auto tech? In Kingston, we toured a decommissioned prison.
Leg Six, in the re-engineered Chevrolet Volt, was an 80 km jaunt from Kingston to Brockville, another picture-perfect Victorian town on Lake Ontario. The only time I ever won a Green Jersey on an Eco-Run I’d been driving an earlier version of the Volt; the 2016 has evolved significantly. The regenerative braking makes coast-stopping not only a good idea, but almost impossible not to do. I rarely employed the brake at all throughout this stage.
The second-last leg got tacked onto the last due to logistical snafus. The drive took us from the Brockville waterfront to downtown Ottawa, where the city’s deputy mayor toasted us with free churros. Then it took us another 13 km out to the Ottawa airport. Not switching cars one last time was OK with me because I was in the Toyota Prius, the car that launched all this green-line fever nearly two decades ago. Once an anomaly, the Prius has become diluted amid an ever-growing number of choices. Its latest design is sleeker and sportier looking than its earlier generations – and the drive is too. Manufacturers continue to influence each other.
Eco-Run features an impressive gamut of green technologies in one place and AJAC’s continually evolving teams of organizers have worked magic over the years to make it run so well. Here are a few observations and suggestions.
One: The Green Jersey competition is a mistake.
Organizers warned drivers both mornings not to hyper-mile and avoid traveling significantly under the speed of traffic. But when you offer auto-journalists a chance for a free t-shirt, all bets are off. Several drivers continually cruised well below the speed limit throughout the two days. Such behaviour is cheekily competitive on quiet rural roads. But on that deathtrap known as Highway 401, it’s foolish and dangerous. Furthermore, the practice of driving 90 kph when the speed of traffic is 120 does not reflect Eco-Run’s raison d’etre: “accurate road testing fuel economy numbers.” If you’re looking for realistic facts about an ecological car, these drivers did you a disservice.
Next year, Eco-Run’s organizers should consider installing a few monitors in cars ad hoc – like Olympics doping tests – and disqualify dangerous hyper-milers from the competition. Better still and much simpler, just cancel the jersey competition outright and give everyone a green t-shirt like the kindergartners their behaviour mimicked. Those drivers who still choose to participate with no competition are the ones readers of articles like this would want anyway. We didn’t have a Green Jersey competition in the inaugural Eco-Run and it was a huge success.
Two: Things are changing unexpectedly fast.
Bill Gates supposedly said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.” When we conducted the first Eco-Run in 2012, many of the cars were novelties. Ubiquitous technologies we now use daily were barely heard of. Consider – today, buyers expect pretty much any new car to offer: multiple drive modes, including eco; start-stop technology; intelligent cruise control; and relatively good competitive fuel economy. 2016 is feeling very Tipping Pointy. The future is almost here – almost.
Three: Most EVs don’t purport to be anything more than a city tootler.
So taking them on jaunts into the country creates not only the recharging problem, but a false scenario. (NB: Tesla seems to have solved the distance issue with its new Model X, explained here, and coming Model 3. But from the start, Tesla has opted not to join Eco-Run. See below.) In that first year, I was the driver who drained an EV’s battery on a windblown hill. The organizers have tried to contain range-anxiety but you can only anticipate so much. This year an EV ran out of juice and the driver/writer was forced to go bowling in Kingston next door to the town’s charging station.
(Bowling. Kingston. I dare you to find a more compatible pair of words.)
Perhaps there should be a sub-Eco-Run event strictly for EVs or all city vehicles. It’s not such a silly idea if you consider that the majority of humanity now lives in cities – and, but for the odd Tesla – EVs exist for city drivers.
Four: We need to include the disruptors.
The newest players in the auto world did not participate in Eco-Run. But Google, Tesla and Apple are busy changing the rules – many of which of ecologically based. It would be lovely if they joined the party, shared, and let us spread their news too.