The electric car has already gone through so much—from being pumped up as a game changer to all but being declared a flop—that it’s easy to forget the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf have only been widely available to the public since 2011.
Even as sales for these two plug-in pioneers have fallen well short of projections, automakers aren’t giving up on electric cars. What’s more, as more new-model EVs hit the market, the entire segment should have more appeal for drivers. Reporting from the Los Angeles Auto Show a couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times noted:
Don’t be surprised to see a decline in electric car prices over the next several months.
Prices drops are the expected result of increased competition from the likes of the Chevy Spark EV and the Fiat 500e, both newly introduced subcompact electric cars that generated plenty of attention (from the Wall Street Journal, for one) at the auto show. The electric version of the Spark should retail for around $25,000 next summer (in California and Oregon) after rebates are factored in, making it among the cheapest EV options on the market. More EV batteries are also being produced, which should bring down their cost and also improve the number of miles drivers can eke out per charge.
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So in the near future, there will be more electric cars on the market, and they’ll be more affordable and practical. But will that be enough? Will the tweaks help push EVs beyond their niche status and give them true mass market appeal? While we’ll have to wait and see, by most indications, it’s going to be a long time before electric cars attract a broad swath of consumers.
Drivers who love their plug-in vehicles really love them. According to Consumer Reports, the all-electric Nissan Leaf is among the top scorers in the most recent study for owner satisfaction, and the automobile with the highest overall score is none other than the Chevy Volt. As Automotive News described it:
The Volt has developed a cultish following. Hundreds of online forums have popped up with posts from Volt owners boasting of traveling thousands of miles between fill ups or squeezing out more than 40 miles on one electric charge.
However, the fact that there is tons of enthusiasm for Volt and other EVs in small circles does not mean that electric cars will be loved, or even considered, by the average driver. In fact, there’s evidence that electric car owners are a very special breed, according to a USA Today story:
A separated compilation of Internet responses by 990 electric-vehicle owners and enthusiasts by the Electric Vehicle Information Exchange, part of a consulting group called Oceanus Automotive, also found them to be different from most motorists. EV owners and fans were primarily “very well educated, upper-middle class white men in their early 50s with ideal living situations for EV charging,” usually garages where they can recharge their cars overnight, said the group’s report.
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The near requirement of owning a garage, it just so happens, is one of five issues named in a Detroit Free Press article about what’s holding EVs back in the marketplace. Plug-ins are often presented as ideal cars for people who live in cities, and yet few apartment dwellers have access to a garage, making it difficult to own an electric car. The story didn’t even bother to include the two much larger issues slowing EV adoption—high initial price and limited driving range—perhaps because they’re so obvious.
Beyond folks who live in apartments, families represent another group that’s bound to find EVs impractical for quite some time. “I don’t think you will see bigger people-carrier EVs,” Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, told the Los Angeles Times. The bigger and heavier the vehicle, the bigger and pricier the battery must be, and the more limited the driving range will be. That math doesn’t work out for families that need one vehicle for five or more people. “It’s just a harder sell. Who wants to be stranded with your family [because the battery drained down] and pay a lot of money to do it?”