Carmakers’ Commitment to Electric Cars: Brand-by-Brand Review
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Every electric vehicle purchase is a vote of confidence in the companies helping to wean the world from a petro-based transportation infrastructure. Obviously, a vehicle’s features—its style, handling and range—are essential for making a good decision. But for many EV buyers, the level of commitment an automaker makes toward the electric car future is another important consideration.
To help you better understand the company behind the car, we offer these brief assessments of how much EV street cred each of the major automotive companies deserve.
MEASURES OF SUCCESS
What indicates that an automaker is making a serious level of commitment to vehicle electrification?
Ground Up Design
Some EVs use existing internal combustion platforms. The automaker finds a way to swap out gas or diesel systems with batteries, motors, chargers and electric controls. This creative reuse can be viable. But auto companies that design and build an EV from the ground up specifically and exclusively as an electric vehicle are making a bigger investment—one that results in a car optimized for electric propulsion.
Size of Production Run
Most electric cars on the road today are produced in minimal quantities—showing little confidence from their makers that a battery-powered vehicle can become popular. These cars are primarily produced and sold, a couple hundred per month, to comply with government mandates for zero-emission cars. However, a few companies—most notably Nissan, Tesla and General Motors—are working to sell plug-in cars in the thousands per month—and eventually in the tens and hundreds of thousands.
After years of EV sales, relatively few electric cars are available widely across the United States. Most models are only available in California, and in some cases also in the New York area. Carmakers covering a wide territory, from one corner of the country to the other, deserve credit for making EVs a mainstream option. Another way to gauge commitment is the percentage of a brand’s dealerships that have inventory and EV-devoted sales support.
An electric vehicle is a different animal than an internal combustion car. Car companies that invest thought and resources into EV innovation are helping establish a new automotive category that maximizes the distinct advantages of an electric car. Notable electric drive features include: quick charging, range-extending engines, big battery packs, lightweight body materials, efficient heating/AC, mobile apps, and multiple regenerative braking settings with driver-controls such as paddle shifters. These features earn EV bonus points for carmakers.
One sure-fire way to kill an EV program is to overprice a plug-in car. While cost and pricing are obviously complex proprietary issues, the current market has established benchmarks for purchase and lease pricing. Electric models that carry sticker prices significantly higher than the competition reflect a clear lack of interest in selling a plug-in car in meaningful quantities.
Range of Vehicles
Every carmaker starts down the road to electrification by launching its first battery-powered car. But there’s a difference between dipping one’s toes in the water and developing a full electrification program that includes multiple models in different vehicle segments—from compacts and sedans, to wagons and crossovers, and one day hopefully minivans and pickup trucks. Relying on a single EV—especially if it’s overpriced, produced in small quantities, and only sold in one state—indicates an anemic electric program.
Comments from Leadership
Nothing undermines consumer confidence in an automaker’s electric efforts than strident anti-EV comments from a chief executive. Honest assessments of the challenges facing electric cars are obviously welcome. But off-the-cuff attacks are unfortunate. Claims from CEOs that EVs “make no sense,” that consumer don’t care, or that the cars lack sufficient range, can turn off buyers considering a purchase from that automaker.
The Report Card
BMW’s commitment to offering robust battery-powered cars dates back to 2008, when it announced limited production of an electric Mini Cooper. That test model—produced for about 500 drivers in California, New York and New Jersey—was the beginning of an extensive, methodical and innovative EV program. The Mini-E was followed by the Active-E (basically an electric 1-series test vehicle) and finally the launch of the BMW i3, the company’s full-production all-electric model, in May 2014. BMW has exhibited a commitment to heavy investments in EV production, including expensive lightweight carbon-fiber components to extend range—for both the i3 EV and the exotic i8 plug-in hybrid. Sales of the i3 are nationwide, in about 80 percent of its dealerships. There is also discussion of a wide range of future BMW plug-in hybrids coming in the next few years.
Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat Chrysler, loves to talk trash about electric cars. Speaking at a Brooking Institutions conference in May 2014, Marchionne said, “I hope you don't buy [the Fiat 500e] because every time I sell one it costs me $14,000.” His negative view on EV economics is supported by lackluster production and sales of the cute all-electric 500. In 2016, the company is averaging about 380 sales per month—all in California, the only market for the small EV. Despite its charms, the Fiat 500e is a vehicle intended for compliance with government mandates only. Plug-in hybrid test programs from Chrysler will finally yield tangible plans for a production vehicle when the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid goes on sale in all 50 states in late 2016.
Daimler (Mercedes and Smart)
Daimler was one of the first automakers to offer an electric car—in the form of the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive. While the first generations of the electric Smart had technical shortcomings, and lackluster sales, Daimler didn’t give up. The current generation of the battery-powered Smart is a better product. In 2014, Daimler introduced its second electric model—the Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive. Sales in 2016 are modest. However, Daimler appears to be committed to EVs in the long-term—as it takes a portfolio approach to efficient powertrains that also includes diesel and fuel cells. Moreover, Mercedes-Benz is promising an unbelievable 10 plug-in hybrids before the end of 2017 and four pure electric cars by 2020.
Bill Ford, the company’s chairman, has been a stalwart of vehicle electrification and automotive environmentalism—ever since Ford became the first American company to offer a conventional hybrid a decade ago. However, Ford has always defined “electrification” in the broadest sense to include hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure battery-electric vehicles. Furthermore, its leadership believes that plug-in hybrids are the answer—and pure EVs will remain marginal. Dealership-level support of the Focus Electric has been spotty, and sales of that car have been low. Nonetheless, Ford (like General Motors) offers three different plug-in models—when you add the Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi to the Focus EV. Combined sales of the plug-in Fusion and C-Max are equal and sometime higher than the Chevy Volt. This puts Ford in a leadership role for plug-in hybrids, offered as a small utility vehicle or a handsome mid-size sedan. Ford, unfortunately, has not committed to building these plug-in models to accommodate battery packs in a way that doesn’t compromise cargo capacity.
General Motors (Cadillac)
GM bounced back from its role as the nemesis of EV advocates—after infamously killing and crushing the EV1 a decade ago. That resurrection mostly came in the form of the Chevrolet Volt, its highly publicized extended-range electric car. Top executives trumpeted the Volt as a “game changer.” The General sells about 2,000 a month, but the car has not become a powerhouse of the electric car market. (If there’s an EV halo, it goes to Tesla.) So, if the extended-range EV technology—which provides nearly 40 miles of electric driving before a gas engine is used—was truly transformative, we might have seen it by now in other models. Unfortunately, the second car to use the system—the $76,000 Cadillac ELR—while looking cool when viewed from across the street, was considered an overpriced luxury dud, and cancelled. Similarly, the Chevy Spark EV, an electric version of the brand’s subcompact, failed to earn customers in California, its only market. But any criticisms about GM lagging behind on pure EVs will quickly recede into the rear view mirror, when the company releases the 238-mile Chevy Bolt electric car in late 2016. All eyes will be on the Bolt and how GM follows through on the market's first so-called affordable long-range electric car.
Honda lacks a firm commitment to plug-in vehicles. Honda President Takanobu Ito told PluginCars.com in 2011 that EVs are really only well suited to small cars, and mostly for non-U.S. markets. Honda made 1,100 units of the Fit EV, a number that closely matches California compliance levels, and its owners experienced a number of technical problems. The model was subsequently discontinued. The Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid, while using a platform that sells in massive quantities, managed to earn few customers and was also cancelled. Meanwhile, Honda remains keen on introducing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, despite all the challenges to hydrogen infrastructure, which many analysts believe are insurmountable. It will introduce the Clarity fuel-cell car in late 2016, and use the same platform and nameplate for all-electric and plug-in hybrid versions in 2017.
In 2009, Kia introduced the Ray EV, an all-electric compact hatchback van, as a limited production vehicle exclusively for the Korean auto market. Since that time, the company worked on a global EV, resulting in the fall 2014 release of the Kia Soul EV. Sales have been modest at best, around 100 units per month, with no meaningful signs that the company will accelerate its plug-in efforts.
Despite making an early commitment to electric cars—and rumors that the entire Mitsubishi brand will revolve around EVs—the company has been relegated to an also-ran, at best. Despite dropping the 2014 price of the compact i-MiEV by more than $6,000, sales have been dismal. This can be attributed to the weakness of the product: 62 miles range, goofy styling, lack of power, and technical problems (one of which led to a recall for dangerous braking failure in 2013). The cute little Mitsu EV was discontinued in late 2015. Similarly disappointing, the promise of the Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid—which is on sale in Europe, Japan and Australia—reaching the US has been continually delayed. Mitsubishi has not proven able to execute any of its grand electric plans, despite making more big announcements over and over again.
You won’t find a more vociferous supporter of electric cars in the auto industry than Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Nissan-Renault. In 2009, he famously said EVs will make up 10 percent of the global market by 2020—and that Nissan expects to sell 1.5 million zero emission cars by 2016. Moreover, he said the company would invest 5 billion or more dollars to make it happen. His euphoric forecasts were tempered by earth-bound sales trends after the Nissan LEAF—a ground-up original model—actually hit the market. Since those early years, Ghosn has remained bullish on EVs. The company planned to introduced an entire line of pure electric vehicles—not hybrids, not plug-in hybrids—but we have yet to see those follow-up Nissan electric vehicles. Yet, Nissan has made steady improvements to the LEAF, especially in terms of range. The LEAF is by far the most popular electric vehicle of all time, but there are few signs that Nissan will assume the leadership role that Ghosn promised.
Elon Musk and his merry band of EV iconoclasts are practically single-handedly reinventing personal transportation for a coming electric car age. It’s not just that Tesla manages to make electric cars look sexy and drive with gusto—as they did starting with the limited-run Roadster (largely based on the Lotus Elise platform). And it’s not just that the Maserati-like Model S, its first car built from scratch, swept Car of the Year awards to become the sweetheart vehicle of the entire auto industry. Or that the Model X, with its falcon doors, makes a family hauler look cool. Tesla’s major achievement arguably its complete reassessment of battery technology, charging systems, automotive retail environments and processes, and public quick charging strategies to allow convenient coast-to-coast road trips. The ultimate litmus test for the company will be its ability to successfully deliver the Model 3, an affordable 200-mile small sedan designed for mass production of 500,000 units a year, powered by batteries by Tesla’s very own Giga battery facility.
The company that championed hybrid gas-electric cars—guiding the frumpy efficient Prius from 1990s science project to an ultra-popular line of four vehicles—is mostly indifferent about electric cars. Granted, one of those four Prii is the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, which was selling in numbers nearly as high as the Chevy Volt, before it was replaced in late 2016 with a version that doubles its all-electric range. Yet, company executives passionately argue that big-battery EVs will never achieve market acceptance beyond a small niche—due to limited range and long recharging times. Instead, it is devoting sizable resources to the introduction of a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. Toyota executives tried to develop a little EV mojo by collaborating with Tesla on the all-electric RAV4 EV. But that model remained a California offering—expensive and produced in a batch of 2,600 units. Toyota's EV recalcitrance could change if reports about the company producing a 185-mile pure EV by 2020 turn out to be true.
VW is late to the EV game. Its first model, the E-Golf arrived to dealerships in California in late 2014. Sales are modest. Yet, if company executives are to be believed, VW wants to the industry’s leader in vehicle electrification—especially in the wake of the company's diesel scandal. Volkswagen leadership in June 2016 said his company plans to sell as many as three million plug-in electric vehicles per year by 2025, representing as much as a quarter of the company’s total projected sales. The company promises to introduce more than 30 new EV and plug-in hybrid models by that time, pledging to offer 20 plug-in models by 2020. If those plans come to fruition, there would be a silver lining to the dark cloud produced by Dieselgate.
Volvo is selling an expensive plug-in version of the XC90 sport utility at a pace of about 160 units per month. Its $70,000 price tag is a limiting factor.
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