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Consumer Reports is adapting its automobile testing to include EVs

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Consumer Reports has been evaluating new cars since 1936, and millions of people subscribe to their reviews. Now, as the auto industry undertakes a shift toward electric vehicles, the product testers have to shift gears, too. But B.J. Leiderman still writes our theme music. NPR's Camila Domonoske takes us for a visit.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: The Consumer Reports garage is spotless. The floors gleam. In fact, this...

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE SQUEAKING)

DOMONOSKE: ...Is the sound of an electric BMW squeaking its way across that pristine floor past a Mercedes, a Ford, a Volvo, a Toyota Prius. Consumer Reports spends millions every year to buy these cars.

ALEX KNIZEK: I buy them. Joe over there, who's walking by...

DOMONOSKE: Hi, Joe.

KNIZEK: ...He buys them, too. I mean, we all kind of share that responsibility.

DOMONOSKE: Alex Knizek is the manager of automotive testing and insights. Staff go undercover to buy the cars to make sure they don't get special treatment. And then they test them out...

(SOUNDBITE OF SEATBELT CLICKING)

DOMONOSKE: ...On ordinary city streets and at this test facility in rural Connecticut, on the site of an old racetrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE RACING)

DOMONOSKE: Knizek takes me for a spin...

KNIZEK: Let's see if we can go faster than 103.

DOMONOSKE: ...In a Nissan Z sports car because why not? You only live once. My headphones just flew off (laughter).

KNIZEK: I'll bring it down a notch.

(LAUGHTER)

DOMONOSKE: We speed past parts of the track where they test brakes, acceleration, handling.

KNIZEK: So just brace yourself.

DOMONOSKE: Now, this zippy Nissan Z, it's very much gasoline-powered. But more and more, Consumer Reports is testing cars that sound more like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAKES SQUEALING)

DOMONOSKE: ...That is, they're almost silent. That's a Rivian electric pickup tearing through those same turns just as fast. The Consumer Reports testers are digging firsthand into all the questions anyone would have before buying an EV. Back at the garage, Knizek walks past a row of chargers.

KNIZEK: So we're able to charge two cars off of each one of these pedestals here.

DOMONOSKE: So enough chargers for more than a dozen cars right here.

KNIZEK: Oh yeah. And they're full (laughter). They are full. So we are adding more.

DOMONOSKE: And adding chargers is not the only change. Consumer Reports has revamped how it tests and rates electric vehicles.

KNIZEK: We really were testing EVs in a very similar way to regular cars, which is fine. But ultimately, we were leaving a lot of things on the table, right? There's a lot of unique aspects of EVs that by doing that, we weren't necessarily capturing.

DOMONOSKE: Things like, how well does the car direct you to the nearest charger? How easy is it to schedule charging? And then of course, there's range. How far does it actually go? To test that, Knizek takes an EV out on the highway.

KNIZEK: Yeah. Then I get the car up to speed and set the cruise control at 70 miles per hour. And then I drive a really long time (laughter). I mean, on the Lucid Air, I was driving for hours and hours and hours.

DOMONOSKE: Because there's only one way to really test range.

KNIZEK: Basically, we drive that car from full all the way to empty. I mean, tow the car back to the track empty.

DOMONOSKE: Some cars overdelivered on their EPA-estimated range. Others fell short. Of course, some things are exactly the same for electric vehicles and gas-powered ones. Like, people care just as much about reliability. And on that front, EVs...

JAKE FISHER: They're not very reliable compared to normal combustion engine vehicles.

DOMONOSKE: Jake Fisher runs Consumer Reports' auto testing program. He says their big annual survey of owners found electric vehicles have 79% more problems. Fisher describes those reliability problems as growing pains. He says imagine if the auto industry had been making electric cars for a century and then suddenly decided to start building gas-powered ones.

FISHER: I will guarantee you that it would be riddled with problems because all that technology is new. The same is going on with electric vehicles. It's going to get worked out.

DOMONOSKE: Fisher says, long term, he expects EVs to be more reliable because they have fewer moving parts. And he sees a lot to love in the EVs on the market today.

FISHER: They're unbelievably fast. They're unbelievably quiet. They're just effortless in terms of how they drive.

DOMONOSKE: Effortless handling - but making them reliably and all the other things that need to happen to pull off this rapid turn toward electric vehicles...

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAKES SQUEALING)

DOMONOSKE: ...That's taking a whole lot of effort.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.