A "Worst Electric Car List" Reminds Us How Far We've Come

By · November 05, 2013

The Elcar from the 1970s had a top speed of 25 miles per hour, and driving range of 40 miles.

Jalopnik, the automotive blog, took aim at an easy target yesterday when it posted the “Ten Worst Electric Cars Ever Made.” The list was full of 1970s experiments, three-wheelers, low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles, and Chinese knock-offs—such as Coda Automotive's electric sedan, which hit Number 10 on the list. The goal was yucks: look at a bunch of stupid EVs. But after the LOLs get emailed and tweeted, a more important point emerges. The past era of substandard electric cars—and notions of EVs as glorified golf carts—is long over.

Jalopnik’s hodgepodge of old school electric vehicles had limitations based on inferior technology and relatively high production costs. Back in the day, electric vehicles were powered by lead-acid or nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Today, lithium ion battery chemistry means vastly improved energy density, with more kilowatt-hours stored on board, and driving range pushing toward 100 miles on nearly all available models—with steady and significant improvements expected in the coming years.

Most of the clunkers from the past were so-called neighborhood electric vehicles, limited to a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Others were three-wheelers with questionable stability. Both technology choices allowed small companies build electric vehicles without the need for expensive crash testing to meet federal safety standards. That lowered the price, making them more affordable, but the gravely compromised designs earned derision over the years, which was conjured up again via Jalopnik's list.

Electric Equals Quality and Luxury

Fast forward to today. There is an ever-expanding range of very high quality, fully highway-capable EVs and electric motorcycles—manufactured by the world's leading automotive companies. You might not love the way every EV looks, but the quality of the design, performance and amenities is at the top of each car’s segment. The 2013 Chevy Volt has, for the three years running, been named the number one compact in the annual J.D. Power Apeal study. The Tesla Model S racked up countless top automotive awards, and is taking a measurable percentage of the luxury car market. The Nissan LEAF won World Car of the Year in 2011. The LEAF, Model S, and Volt all have five star crash safety ratings with the federal government.

Let’s not forget the electric motorcycle market. We now have two companies—Zero Motorcycles and Brammo—making excellent electric motorcycles with performance and features that can satisfy nearly all motorcyclists. They claim top speeds around 100 miles an hour—verified in electric motorcycle racing events—and riding range of between 70 and100 miles, with quick recharge times.

The 2012 Coda Automotive electric sedan.

The Coda Automotive electric sedan, despite landing on Jalopnik's list of worst electric cars, is an example of how far the EV market has come.

The Coda electric car had lackluster styling reminiscent of 1990s family cars—but it’s an outlier in the Jalopnik list. Coda’s electric drive train, battery pack, and charging system were decent. The car had the largest trunk space of any electric car other than the Tesla Model S. Coda's battery pack design included an active heating and cooling system, a feature many Nissan LEAF owners suffering from premature range degradation wish Nissan had put into its small EV. It was also one of the first electric cars to have a 6.6-kilowatt on-board charger. These features don’t make up for the car’s other problems, and the mismanagement of the company that led to its demise, but in those features, you can see the emergence of electric cars out of an era of low-quality and low-speed to today’s impressive advances.

Jalopnik’s list is a crack-up to read. At the same time, it should remind carmakers producing electric cars to go the extra mile to avoid invoking the "eeew" response. The negative stereotypes attached to electric vehicles have programmed consumers with skepticism and doubt. Electric vehicles that steer as far away as possible from those outdated stereotypes will fare the best, and do the most to increase the size of the EV market.

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