Following the first half decade since major manufacturer plug-in cars came on the scene, 2016 was marked by several significant stories pushing green cars forward.
This has been a year that’s seen new vehicle models as well as a major increase in the commitment by carmakers to continue introducing new ones through this decade, into next.
Pushing the industry are global regulations centered around environmental concerns – including the well-reported climate change issue – as well as increased desire simply for cleaner air for everyone to breathe.
Cutting petroleum use has also been a big part of the mandates, and given regulations are tightening toward an ultimate zero-emission objective, that pretty well foreshadows how the cars and trucks people drive will also evolve.
The top stories this year are based on a subjective mix of what readers were most interested in, and in turn, how these stories stand to affect the future.
National Distribution for 2016/17 Chevy Volt
Chevrolet rolled out the 2016 Volt beginning in October 2015 in California and 10 states following its zero-emission rules, but the rest of the country got it starting in 2016 and the model year changed to 2017 early as the rollout continued into the spring.
The extended-range electric Volt had been the first major manufacturer plug-in alongside the Nissan Leaf to be released in 2011, and the 2016/17 model is the first to receive a full redesign.
With 53-miles EV range, and now 42 mpg in hybrid mode, the compact front-wheel drive sedan is unique with its long range, and that it will stay in EV mode under full acceleration unlike blended PHEVs.
New for the Volt also is a powertrain that’s better suited as the basis for more plug-in hybrids or non-plug-in hybrids. The 46-mpg Malibu Hybrid was actually co-developed with the Volt, and General Motors has more options now to leverage the technology.
There’d been a lot of pent up anticipation during 2014 and 2015 for this new model, but as it’s come along, sales did not break to new highs, and are about what they were in its peak years of 2012 and 2013 which saw 23,000 and some each year.
Other promising vehicles, including ones on this list, have captured some of the mindshare for buyers in this segment.
This said, the Volt is notable as an extremely effective way to avoid petroleum day to day, while having full long-range hybrid drive, and it remains very competitive.
2017 Toyota Prius Prime Reveal and Launch
Toyota’s Prius Prime is the second plug-in car to receive a full model redesign, and builds on the 2016 Prius Liftback introduced last year.
A plug-in hybrid, it’s EPA rated for 25 miles electric range positioning it competitively in that department with other blended PHEVs, if not the 53-mile Chevy Volt.
Other numbers of note are an industry leading 133 MPGe in EV mode, and 54 mpg combined in hybrid mode positioning it above the base 52 mpg Prius, and below the 56 mpg Prius Two Eco, and otherwise one of the highest fuel efficiency ratings of any U.S. car sold.
A four-passenger vehicle, rumored to eventually make room for five, it’s priced aggressively – in line with non-plug-in Prius models – and Toyota is offering it in 50 states as opposed to the 2012-2015 Prius PHV which had half the EV range, and was sold in just 15 states.
The former Prius PHV has ranked as high as third-best global seller among all plug-in electrified cars, and rests soundly on the laurels perceived by Toyota and its major lead in hybrids.
Does the new Prime range topper have enough to capture buyers’ attention again to such a degree? Time will tell.
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV Reveal and Launch
The Bolt EV had been revealed as a concept in 2015, in one year was fast tracked for its initial debut at CES 2016 in January, and last week the first three units of the 238-mile range EV priced from $37,495 were sold in California.
Chevrolet in 2013 had targeted the general over 200-mile range specs Tesla has long aspired to deliver – and which it will next year – and used its corporate might to do it quicker.
At this stage at least five 200-mile-plus EVs in this price range are expected over the next three years, and the Bolt significantly increases range-for-dollar over current models in its segment, including the 107-mile range class leader, the Nissan Leaf.
As a front-wheel-drive car – Chevrolet calls is a compact crossover – its interior volume is essentially midsized thanks to its 60-kWh battery being hidden in the floor enabling maximum space utilization and utility.
Chevrolet is also making this car its focal point for self-driving tech, and meanwhile fans are hoping further electric models are also being developed.
This year only Oregon and California buyers will have dealers in state offering the car. Plans are for more key markets to open this winter, and a full rollout by “mid 2017” – just in time for excitement for the Tesla Model 3 to kick into high gear.
2018 Tesla Model 3 Reveal
The much-anticipated “down market” model for Tesla was shown March 31, and waves were immediately made with more than 400,000 reservations piling in within a couple weeks or so.
Borrowing much of the design language from the upscale Model S, but unique in its own right, the Model 3, Tesla says, promises to start at $35,000, offer at least 215 miles range, and basically is much of what one gets in a Model S for around half the price,
Upper level models are expected to offer bigger batteries for longer range, and potentially blistering performance in rear- and all-wheel-drive.
Like so much that Tesla does, the planned car has provoked skeptics to wonder aloud how Tesla can pull off a profitable Model 3 when it’s only had a few profitable quarters selling higher priced models.
Company head Elon Musk says essentially synergies are in play, the company is looking to significantly shave manufacturing costs, increase economies of scale, and otherwise, they’ll make it happen, he has said.
Next on the agenda is a second reveal of the close-to-production Model 3 expected before the midpoint of next year, if not as soon as April, though it’s not been announced.
Reports of analysts disbelieving Musk’s projection of first sales in 2017 have also gone out, but Michigan-based analyst Alan Baum does forecast first sales this year. His estimate is by October, and following a slow start, as many as 5,000 could be sold by this time next year.
Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Reveal and Launch
Chrysler gave the world its first “minivan,” and the replacement for its Town and Country is also the world’s first to come as a plug-in hybrid.
With a significant 33 miles EV range from its 16-kWh battery, the seven-passenger vehicle fills a gaping void in a segment that other automakers to date have not yet entered.
Its 32 mpg in regular hybrid mode is also a range-topping number for such a large vehicle, and it’s hoped other carmakers will follow with large plug-ins at relatively modest prices too.
Factoring potential subsidies, the Pacifica is closely priced next to similarly equipped non-hybrid Pacificas from the low 40s.
Word has it the Maserati Levante will also get the Pacifica Hybrid’s powertrain, which speaks well of the Chrysler that’s leading the way in big fuel savings where it’s been badly needed.
Volkswagen Diesel Cheating Scandal
The train wreck in progress that has been “dieselgate” has had more bad reported about it than good, but for electrified vehicle fans there has been a silver lining to dark clouds of diesel public relations smoke.
Namely, the scandal which began September 2015 has this year pushed already underlying public sentiment further away from diesels – which in Europe have comprised half of all passenger vehicle sales.
And, it’s pushing all the major manufacturers of Europe further toward electrification, starting with Volkswagen Group which this year committed to 30 battery electric cars by 2025 across its various brands, along with a plethora of plug-in hybrids.
While aforementioned regulations are another key driver to the kinds of cars being made, automakers which had been defiantly holding onto diesels no longer have near the will to continue.
In fact, after VW added to prior commitments for electrification, in October Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) and BMW also said they want many more electrified cars, and in essence, it was like a dam break this year.
Now all three manufacturers are predicting by 2025 at least 15 percent, if not 20-25 percent of their global sales will come from plug-in cars.
Their motives also follow the Paris Agreement on climate change, and other factors, but who would have guessed diesel emission cheating – aided by lax rules in Europe – would have played as big a role as it has in a major turn of events.