Now 18 years since Toyota’s Prius was introduced in 1997 as a “science experiment” of an alternative-energy car in Japan, today there are six dozen electrified passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. and challengers to petroleum’s monopoly continue to get better.
Five standouts due within the next 24 months – if not as soon as this summer – are noteworthy as they take things up a notch and present challenges to other automakers hoping to remain competitive.
While the end-all-be-all “game changer” of an electric car that relegates internal combustion to history has yet to be developed, it is now game-on, and these cars each raise the bar by which everyone else will be measured.
This January General Motors nearly surprised everyone by developing an avante garde five-passenger concept electric car in Australia it was initially coy about, but actually did have every intention to produce.
In the here-today, gone-tomorrow news cycle it had escaped some peoples’ attention but GM had actually said in 2013 it was shooting for a 200-mile range EV with a $30,000 after-subsidy price in response to Tesla.
And sure enough, GM rolled out the Bolt ahead of Tesla’s projected car and a month later said it will indeed build a production version, without stating the launch date, but based on reported insider tips this is widely believed to be 2017.
Green car analyst Alan Baum projects in pencil that the Bolt should be in dealers as soon as 17 months from now in October 2016 and assuming so, it will loom above every other EV with more-than double the electric range for the same dollar.
Today EVs priced where GM says the Bolt is to be are all in the sub-100 mile club. A more-than 100-percent increase should mean others are working already to bring their EVs up to snuff.
Due late summer or early fall, the 2016 Chevy Volt boosts EV range from 38 rated to 50, now runs on regular and has a teeny jump seat in the middle back row for kids and child seats.
Priced from just below $34,000 to start, eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit, it also towers above all other competitive plug-in hybrids with over 100-percent more EV range.
By comparison, the Ford Fusion Energi is rated 19 miles e-range but it is a larger midsized car, roomier, so the Volt is not unequivocally better on all counts in the eyes of some.
But it is where it counts. The Volt may by GM’s reckoning be driven 90 percent of the time gas-free because its range is enough for most average daily drives.
This is a standard other PHEVs cannot come close to with their limited batteries.
The Volt is also noteworthy in that its revised powertrain was deliberately designed to be adapted into other vehicles such as the Malibu Hybrid and potential plug-in hybrids besides that could follow.
So, the Volt is a challenge to others and it has the goods to spruce up GM’s own product offerings as needed.
Tesla Model 3
Unlike the Model S and Model X, we’ve not been seeing early Model 3 preproduction prototypes running around the vicinity of Tesla’s California home base leading to some jaded observations that the 200-plus mile range, mid-30s EV is “vaporware.”
Not vaporware is the $5 billion Gigafactory due to begin operation next year in Reno, Nevada that’s to be the supplier for the Model 3’s batteries, and so, when we finally get to see it, it will make big headlines.
Assuming Tesla gets it right, the Model 3 will be an affront to numerous internal combustion powered cars.
It’s being designed by Franz von Holzhausen who’s said the Model 3 will be an original all-Tesla creation, not as much an amalgamation of different design elements as the Model S is.
He has said BMW’s entry into the EV space is but “Ikea” level design, and the Model 3 will be priced near or below the i3, with double the range, will probably be quicker, so expect heads to turn.
Admittedly, today it is a phantom of a car we only hear about and have not seen but Tesla’s future is riding on it, so stay tuned.
Next Nissan Leaf
Nissan has sold over 170,000 Leafs globally since 2010 and when it finally gets around to updating the midsized five-passenger EV for 2017 it too will be a big deal.
CEO Carlos Ghosn has already said its spec sheet will not be left behind by the Chevy Bolt and over 200 miles range is in the offing from a new battery chemistry waiting in the wings.
Nissan has a following as the most out-in-front EV maker bold enough to not let its EV be a mere compliance car, and the loyalty factor may mean buyers will be inclined to stay with Nissan.
At the same time Nissan knows it must develop a car to go long. If six-seven-year long product life cycles are to be the norm, it will need a really special upgrade to last through 2024 or so.
Whatever it is, the Leaf is established, and could become a new standard for others to follow.
Fourth Generation Toyota Prius
While some people want pure EVs, Toyota has 70 percent of the regular hybrid market and the 2016 Prius comes with an unmatched pedigree, and may have close to 58 mpg as well.
Like the Model 3, no one has set eyes on the prototype due later this year, but Toyota says the new car will be sportier, around 15 percent more efficient than the present 50 mpg Prius and it’s already the heavy hitter in the alternative vehicle market.
One news story du jour has been that hybrids are a dying species and in light of cheap gas making their value less apparent for some, this has held weight, but the other factor is everyone knows the new Prius is coming.
Over a year ago in March 2014 we noted the hybrid market was softening before gas prices did and one major reason was the aging Prius which still outsells the next-nearest hybrid – other Toyotas usually – by a three-to-one.
With 120,000-140,000 units or so sold annually in the U.S., don’t think people aren’t holding back hoping this one will be the slam dunk Toyota knows it needs to be in light of plug-in cars already competing for mind share.
Assuming the Prius is as good as Toyota wants and needs it it to be, a much-better Prius could breath life into the regular hybrid market in general, and at very least it will raise the bar for companies like Ford, Honda, Hyundai, and now GM to try and keep up.
Given the Prius’ known reliability, the fact shops across the country know how to fix it, as well as no plug to deal with, some people may be just fine with a new one that consistently gets mpg like a motorcycle and holds its value better than most plug-in cars.