The Major Problem With Cheap Electric Cars

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Mitsubishi is the latest in a long line of automakers to slash prices on an electric car, the unpronounceable, unfortunately named i-MiEV. The model is now the cheapest electric vehicle (EV) on the market, yet it’s still hard to imagine many drivers excitedly running out to buy one.

Overall, American consumers are paying more for cars. The average price paid for a new light vehicle in November was $32,769, up 3% compared with October, and 1.1% year over year, according to Kelley Blue Book. Yet as average prices rise, one segment of the new-car market has gotten markedly cheaper. “Electric vehicles had the largest decrease in pricing, down 15% due to several price cuts during the past year,” says Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

This is a trend that only seems to be growing, as another electric car, a golf-cart-like-model Mitsubishi, has just been marked down by 20%.

In the world of electric vehicles, Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV has mostly been an afterthought. The model lacks the sex appeal of Tesla, it’s not nearly as practical as the plug-in Chevy Volt (which has a driving range of 380 miles, or 612 km, thanks to battery and gas power), and the large price cut of the Nissan Leaf meant that it offered far more bang for the buck than Mitsubishi’s electric car. The Leaf also generally has received far better reviews, and it has superior range: 75 miles (121 km) on a single charge, compared with about 60 miles (97 km) for the i-MiEV.

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The best indication of interest in specific electric-car models is simply the sales tally. Tesla expects to sell 21,500 Model S cars by the end of 2013. Data collected by Autoblog indicates that Nissan and Chevrolet are neck and neck for the EV sales lead this year, having sold a bit more than 20,000 Leafs and Volts through November. Speaking of November, 2,003 Leafs were sold nationally that month, compared with 1,920 Volts. And what about Mitsubishi’s EV? Automotive News reported that a grand total of 12 i-MiEVs sold in the month. Just over 1,000 i-MiEVs have been purchased nationally thus far in 2013, and many of them were sold with the help of dealer incentives amounting to discounts of up to $10,000.

In light of data like that, and the examples set by Nissan, Chevy and other automakers that saw sales take off after electric model price cuts, it’s understandable that Mitsubishi just announced a major price slashing for the next i-MiEV. The 2014 model starts with a sticker price of $23,845, a drop of $6,130 from the previous edition. Federal tax credits effectively knock the price paid out of pocket by drivers down to $16,345, and in states with further incentives like California, the net takeaway price potentially inches down to under $14,000. That’s among the cheapest prices available for any new car sold today, no matter how it’s powered.

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Hopefully, the price cut will help Mitsubishi sell more than a dozen EVs per month. But even at that price, it’s not clear if all that many drivers will bite. The reviewers at Consumer Reports say the i-MiEV is “not a car in which anyone will be happy spending time,” and that the newly discounted price is “still a lot of money for a car that feels like little more than an enclosed golf cart. The appeal lies solely in providing attainable access into the world of pure-electric cars. At this price, it becomes more feasible as a second, occasional-use car.”