2016 Is Half Over: Here Are the Top 10 Companies in the Fray
Picking the Top 10 electric car makers now involves making some choices as the number of vehicles available increases. Plug-ins are trending in key markets around the country, although much of the action remains focused in California and other West Coast states. By mid-year in 2016 the total number of plug-in vehicles (that’s pure battery electrics and plug-in hybrids) sold this year has topped 64,000. It’s a beginning! But just keep it in perspective–that’s the equivalent of 16 percent of the sales of the Ford F-Series pickup, the country’s best-selling vehicle (and a fairly fuel efficient one at that).
This list is subjective, but also factors in sales numbers. Enjoy!
1. Our New Favorites — the Volkswagen e-Golf & Audi A3 e-tron
This little electric rocket ship hasn’t been on the market long, but it’s making a strong impression wherever it goes. While holding down the 10th spot in sales for 2015, we put it at number one for
several reasons. First, it’s a Golf, which is a great small car package. The Volkswagen e-Golf is very maneuverable, bringing all of the good suspension work of the seventh generation Golf into an electric car. The packaging of the Golf is another plus. It’s got a decent-size interior with room for five (in a pinch, or four comfortable adults) plus storage behind the hatch in back. While the move to electric drive in an existing platform hasn’t allowed Volkswagen the opportunity to really optimize for the new powertrain, we have no complaints about the standard Golf layout. Then there’s performance: it’s fast, as most electrics are, smart with different regen levels and driving settings, and handles like all the other gas and diesel Golfs, which is to say—great! And the $33,450 e-Golf has been joined by a distant cousin, the Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid, which we recently tested and came away very pleased with what we found. VW has hinted more plug-ins are coming after that. Road Test: 2014 VW e-Golf. First Drive: 2015 e-Golf. Road Test: 2016 Audi A3 e-tron.
- Tesla – the 4,800-pound Gorilla
Tesla is described as disruptive technology, but in reality the company has done what auto companies have done for a little more than a century—build great cars and match them up with owners who appreciate them. The Model S is the best-selling plug-in car in the U.S. for the first six months of 2016, even as it continues to expand its overseas markets and was joined in the
showroom by the SUV-like Model X in September 2015. The roomy Model S luxury sedan starts at about $66,000 with four battery pack configurations, but now offers three all-wheel drive version that feature even faster acceleration. Production of the Roadster, the company’s initial product, ended after deliveries totaling 2,500. The Model S has a remarkable electric range of almost 300 miles per charge in some of its battery configurations. Tesla helped shareholder Toyota to bring back the Toyota RAV4 EV, an electric SUV and also aided its other OEM shareholder, Daimler (which has since divested its Tesla shares), with the Smart ED and B-Class Electric. The company is taking orders for the Tesla Model 3, its affordable ($35,000) smaller model starting late in 2017. Tesla continues to battle with auto dealers in many states as it tries to establish a direct-sales model, although founder Elon Musk has admitted his sales plan may not work when they move to the more mass-market Model 3, which he intends to sell in volumes of up to 500,000 per year. Tesla News, Tesla News & More Tesla News.
- Nissan Leaf – the Standard Bearer
Nissan is the sales leader of pure electric cars and is staying the course in its commitment to this technology. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn reiterated recently that his company will support electric
drive while also offering plug-in hybrids and fuel cell electric cars. The company’s flagship car is the Leaf, a five-door, five-seat hatchback that is the right size and range for many who drive under 100 miles daily; it’s a perfect fit for households with more than one car. Nissan makes the Leaf and its batteries in Tennessee for the U.S. market with options that include Level 1 charge, Level 2 charge at 6.6 kW/hour, and 25-minute DC fast charge. Nissan delivers great value with many dealers offering aggressive leases based on a price starting at $29,010. The Leaf was refreshed in 2016 with a larger (30 kWh) battery pack and longer range. We’ll be testing it soon. Road Test: 2013 Nissan Leaf.
- Chevrolet Volt – an Electric Car with an Engine
General Motors is #1 in plug-in hybrid (PHEV) sales with the Chevrolet Volt, a four-passenger compact hatchback that has 50+ miles of electric range and more than 400 miles per gasoline fill-up range in its second generation. The Volt has a starting price of about $34,490, but is eligible for federal and state incentives. Its sales have bumped up with the updated version that hit in late 2015 as a 2016 model. We’ve spent quite a bit of time in this car and think it’s a keeper. It’s won morethan a few accolades. The versatility to drive around town and potentially commute as an electric car (Chevy estimates most drivers will go more than 1,000 miles between fill-ups), coupled with the ability to take longer trips relying on the gasoline “range extender” makes it a great choice for a one-car household.
Also at GM is the all-electric Chevrolet Spark EV (on sale in California and Oregon) for about $26,685; it’s a fun city car with 80-mile range between charges. Sales are slow for the CadillacELR, which uses a plug-in hybrid drive system similar to the Volt, and it will be going out of production. It retails for $75,000, but many discounts are available. It also may get a facelift and the new Volt system when it becomes available. And promised to be right around the corner is the Chevy Bolt—an all-electric designed tobeat Tesla’s “affordable” electric to the market with 200+ mile range and a $35,000 price tag.
Here are some of our road tests of the GM plug-ins (more are coming soon)–Road Tests: 2014 Chevy Volt; 2014 Chevy Spark EV; Cadillac ELR.
- BMW – the Ultimate Electric Driving Machine?
BMW has charged into the electric car space with two strong contenders—the hot-selling i3 and the i8 plug-in hybrid supercar. We’ve driven both and are impressed by both, as are many others.
The i3 (which actually comes in two versions—a pure battery electric and a ranged-extended EV) is the fourth best-selling plug-in car in the U.S. in 2015. The i8 is no slouch, either, outselling not only the Cadillac ELR and the Porsche Panamera and 918 Spyder plug-ins, but also mainline EVs like the Ford Focus Electric. Not bad for a car that lists for $136,500. The i3 starts at $42,400. Like most manufacturers, BMW has more plug-in models coming; several have already hit the market–a plug-version of its popular SAV (for Sport Activity Vehicle), the X5 xDrive40e (which we’ll be testing soon) and a plug-in version of the company’s best-selling 3-Series. Road Test: 2014 BMW i3. First Drive: 2015 BMW i8.
- Ford – Variety Is Their Spice of Life
Ford has made a commitment to fuel efficiency that starts with their widely used EcoBoost engines (basically smaller turbocharged direct-injection engines that can replace larger non-turbo port-injection powerplants). They have a trio of plug-in vehicles that are the tip of the spear for their environmental efforts. They start with a full-electric Ford Focus and two plug-in hybrids, the Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi (both of which also come in a plain-Jane hybrid version). Sales have been steady, but slow as they are the second and third best-selling models in the PHEV sales behind the Volt. They sacrifice some trunk space for the added batteries (compared to the hybrid models), but deliver solid performance and enough for 21 miles of electric-only driving. Road Test: 2014 Ford Focus Electric. Road Test: 2014 Ford Fusion
- Toyota – Big in Hybrids; Betting on Fuel Cell Electrics
Toyota, with eight million hybrid sales under its belt, has dabbled in both plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars, but now seems focused on fuel cell electric cars. The latter uses hydrogen to produce
electricity on board and power the electric motors. Toyota’s Prius Plug-In Hybrid looks like another Prius until you spot the J1772 plug for smart charging for a 12 to 15-mile electric range. With a starting price of $32,000, Toyota has had some sales success, and has promised a new version to follow the redone Prius that’s now out. It will get a new name–Prius Prime. Clean Fleet Report tested the original model, comparing it with the better-known non-plug-in version. Toyota also offered a limited model in California: the only all-electric SUV, the RAV4 EV, with an advertised 150-mile electric range (produced with some help from Tesla, in which Toyota is a shareholder) and earlier did a limited EV run of its minicar, the iQ. Now on the market is the Mirai, a fuel-cell sedan with a 350-mile range and a $57,000 price tag (it starts deliveries in October 2015 in California). Toyota offers 13 hybrid models (Toyota & Lexus) with similar electric motors and advanced battery packs, sometimes shared with its electric cars. We’ve tested most of those. First Drive: 2013 RAV4 EV. Road Test: Plug-In Prius and Prius Liftback. First Drive: 2016 Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle. First Drive: Toyota iQ
- Daimler Begins an Electric Onslaught
Daimler is the automotive giant that owns Mercedes-Benzand Smart and also was a Tesla stockholder. The two-seat Smart ED can be purchased for only $25,000 ($17,500 after federal tax credit) and has been selling in small numbers (many to the company’s Car2Go car-sharing subsidiary). The Smart minicar is now in its third generation and has a range of about 84 miles, reinforcing its role as a city car. Car2Go operates in 11 U.S. cities and continues to look to expand. Mercedes has two versions of its subcompact B-Class, a pure electric with 87 miles of range and a fuel cell electric vehicle with a more than 300 miles of range, the only versions of that car available in the U.S. The electric B-Class (starting at $41,450) is selling better than the Smart ED and the B-Class fuel cell EV sells in limited numbers in areas where there is a fueling infrastructure. The company has just introduced a plug-in versions of its S-Class (the S550 Plug-in Hybrid at $95,325)) and promises other models such as a plug-in C-Class in the near future. The next generation fuel cell car also should surface in a year or two. First Drive: Smart Fortwo ED.
- Fiat – Small, But a Mighty Fine, Fun EV
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is selling the Fiat 500e somewhat reluctantly, but don’t let that turn you away. Even though FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne famously claims the company loses
$14,000 on every $32,780 500e it sells, they do need to sell quite a few of them to meet California’s ZEV (zero emission vehicle) mandate so take advantage while you can. It’s a fun all-electric city car. We thought it was the most fun car of the EV bunch until the e-Golf came out and trumped it both in functionality and fun. Very affordable (sub-$100/month) lease deals have been available for this spunky EV. It manages to carry through the Italian charm and personality found in its gas models. The major drawback, which could be an advantage in an urban location, is the small size of the vehicle. As a two-door with a small back seat, its capability of carrying four adults is limited. Road Test: Fiat 500e.
- Kia – Coming on Strong
Kia has its Soul EV on the market and we’ve already has a chance to drive it. Along with its parent company Hyundai, Kia is scheduled to launch two plug-in hybrids (the Hyundai Sonata, which is on sale and selling well, and the Kia Optima, which will follow in a year or so) and a Hyundai-branded pure electric car in 2017. In addition, the ambitious company plans to market Hyundai and Kia dedicated hybrid models in a stab at grabbing some of the Prius market. Hyundai has also already begun leasing its Tucson fuel cell electric vehicles in Southern California. First Drive: 2015 Kia Soul EV.
That’s the Top 10, but the good news is there are even more models on the market and some have come and gone already. Coda Automotive, with its warmed-over Chinese sedan, has departed, butFisker Automotive appears about to revive its high-end plug-in hybrid under new Chinese ownership.
Honda sold a limited number of its Fit EVs and similarly stopped selling the Accord Plug-in Hybrid.Like Toyota and Hyundai, it is focusing on fuel cell electrics as its main EV strategy going forward, but could return to a pure EV and PHEV depending on market trends. It continues to promote ideas like an integrated car and home energy system that would depend on a plug-in car.
Mitsubishi still offers the i (formerly i-MiEV), though the company skipped the 2015 model year. The i fits into tight parking spaces and tight electric car buyer budgets, starting at about $29,000. It’s a very Japanese model five-door, four-passenger hatchback. The i has an electric range of 62 miles (EPA adjusted) with a 16kWh lithium battery. Although it’s been modified for the US market it still feels very much like the Japanese-market original, which is to say, less substantial than many of its competitors. Mitsubishi also reiterated its intent to bring a plug-in version of its popular Outlander SUV to the U.S. this coming year.
Then there’s Porsche (another VW affiliate) with its plug-in Panamera sedan, Cayenne SUV and 918 sports car also in the market. Other companies have teased plug-ins, but we’ll wait until we see hardware before adding them to any list.
Volvo has just started selling its plug-in hybrid version of the XC90 SUV, though numbers are expected to remain low. We drove it recently and came away very impressed.
California and seven other states reaffirmed their goal to have 3.3 million electric cars (including plug-in hybrids and fuel cells) on the road by 2025. The numbers are basically accounted for in the ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) mandate that the states have in place, but rely on a steep ramp up of sales after 2020.