The Sono Sion Solar Car Is Coming to the US, Here's What It Will Do
This $25,000 car helps decide if solar is the next big thing in electric cars.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
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German carmaker Sono says its Sion solar electric car will be coming to the US, prompting a lot of questions about what solar cars can do. I checked out a Sion in person during its first US tour and found that the answers are more nuanced than with a big-battery Tesla or a Hyundai Ioniq5 that has trivial solar charging.
The Sion promises 190 miles of range on a charge, but that isn't all solar range: The sun can account for about 5,400 miles a year, which averages out to 70 to 150 miles per week or 10 to 20 miles a day. That's less than many Americans drive and even that amount of solar range wouldn't be evenly distributed across all days because of weather, seasonality and where you park, the solar car equivalent of carefully siting rooftop solar for viability. When the car comes to the US it will have a solar position feature in its app to predict the amount of charge you'll get in a given parking space.
For most drivers, solar will be a free, completely green contributor to conventional plug-in charging, not an obviation of it. However, if you drive only very local trips -- or dedicate this car to them while using another car for longer driving -- this car could have a profound role in your transportation footprint.
How the Sion works
The Sion is plastered in solar panels, not just on the roof as a few other cars already have, but also on the hood and the car's sides. The solar panels aren't slapped onto existing metal bodywork but integrated into its dentproof polymer body panels. As a result, the car can't have a shiny paint job or range of colors, but Sono says production models will at least be an even shade of matte-gray-black, which happens to be a fashionable look these days.
The solar bodywork feeds a pretty average sized 54-kWh lithium-ion phosphate battery whose chemistry is particularly adept at handling numerous charge and discharge cycles. The stored power goes to a 163-hp motor that drives the front wheels to move the 3,800-pound car.
Ignoring the solar tech
The Sion can charge to 80% of its 190 miles of range in about 30 minutes on a DC fast charger and in a few hours via a Level 2 connection – all garden variety stuff seen in most EVs. You could own this car and never care about its solar technology, which may seem odd until you realize that its promised $25,000 MSRP would make it one of the cheapest ways to get into an EV, period. It won't qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit due to being assembled outside of North America.
The Sion also has connectivity that allows sharing it with others keylessly, earning you a little money when you aren't driving. I doubt the appeal of such programs in the US market, but it probably costs relatively little for Sono to enable it in their cars here and it makes sharing with family members a little more convenient.
What to make of this solar car
It's a bit of conundrum: Drivers in highly urbanized areas might be able to do all of their driving within the car's solar range, but they'd also be the drivers with the most compromised access to sunlight, due to concrete canyons and parking garages. The car's sharing ability can create high daily utilization, a holy grail for all future vehicle efficiency, but that could relegate the car's limited solar range to a footnote of its weekly usage.
The Sono Sion is a car worth watching on its path to US availability. Its solar story isn't a slam dunk for most US drivers but its promised low price and home powering ability recast the entire vehicle as something more compelling than just a solar car. It's also an interesting step toward the holy grail of EV adoption: When parking equals charging.