How Much Driving Range is Enough for an Electric Car?

By · February 27, 2017

The Hyundai Ioniq Electric (left) offers 124 miles of driving range, while the Chevy Bolt (right) provides 238 miles on a single charge.

The latest generation of affordable electric cars offers more than 100 miles of range. In the case of the Hyundai Ioniq, which goes on sale in April, you can travel 124 miles on a single charge—while the Chevy Bolt EV, available now, goes a whopping 238 miles on a full charge. With the introduction of these two battery-electric cars—the two most recent EV models to hit the market—we see for the first time that maximizing range might not be the most critical factor for electric car buyers.

Automotive design and road manners are a matter of personal taste. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that compared to the Bolt you prefer the Ioniq’s extra 12 inches of vehicle length, seven more cubic feet of cargo, the softer feel of its dashboard, and its lower purchase price. Should you nonetheless cross the Ioniq off your shopping list solely because it offers half as much range as the Bolt?

This question reveals the new reality of EV buying—requiring consumers to do soul-searching and mileage-counting to determine how many times over a lifetime of ownership you will actually need 238 miles on a single charge. Very few drivers have any intention of traveling more than 100 miles in a day. The average daily commute is around 40 miles. That means most Bolt drivers will typically use only a fraction of its range capacity—barely draining the battery pack down to about 200 miles of remaining range and returning home to top the battery back up again.

Based on this scenario, nearly ever Ioniq driver will make much greater use of the Ioniq’s 28 kilowatt-hour pack, while Bolt drivers will pay for and carry a lot of battery capacity that doesn’t get used. A bigger battery also means less
cargo space, more vehicle weight and lower operating efficiency. Hyundai executives equate this scenario to owners of conventional cars wanting to max out on horsepower or towing capacity but almost never put the car on the track or tow a boat. It comes down to the consumer psychology of what buyers want versus what they need.

The auto industry is not nearly at the end of improvements in EV range. Soon, a car like the Ioniq will offer 150 or 160 miles of range. In turn, the Bolt could offer even more than its 238 miles. It once again begs the question: How much EV driving range is enough?

The Hyundai Ioniq Electric (left) is bigger and less expensive than the Chevy Bolt (right).

Five years ago, I asked that question to J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer. He told me, “A functional minimum we should aim for is the 125- to 150-mile range. I think it gets meaningful constrained when you get below that.”

For the past three years, I have driven a 2014 Toyota RAV4 EV, which offers 120 miles of range. During that time, I did not experience so-called range anxiety a single time—and never missed the vehicle’s lack of quick-charging capability. (That wasn’t the case with my previous EV, a first-generation 84-mile Nissan LEAF). My experience—granted, in the mild weather of Northern California—makes me think that I don’t need a 200-mile EV. We are a two-car family with an efficient hybrid available for road trips once or twice a year.

Of course, there are extenuating factors. If you live in a place with very cold weather, An EV’s range can drop by 30 percent or more on freezing days. So the Ioniq’s range could drop to below 100 miles in frigid weather. On the other hand, the Bolt’s huge battery could serve as a buffer in cold-weather, making all the difference for long-distance commuters living in places like Minneapolis or Buffalo. And if you like the Bolt’s looks, creature comforts and interior space, then the value of its 238 miles of range is beyond question.

But if you prefer the style, space and handling of another EV, even if it offers less range than the Bolt or upcoming Tesla Model 3—or if you want to save a few thousand dollars—then 124 miles of range is plenty. Could driving range no longer be the ultimate purchase criteria that it once was?

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