Are Electric Vehicles Unreliable?

tesla model s
Source: Tesla

Ask people why they won’t buy an electric vehicle and you’re likely to hear responses about charging infrastructure, limited range, or sticker price. These concerns are valid enough, but the latest Consumer Reports ratings may suggest a more pressing problem: poor reliability, as neither Tesla nor BMW fared well with their flagship EVs. Nonetheless, there is no reason to sound the alarm. Plug-in car owners are committed to their vehicles for numerous reasons and subpar reliability ratings are likely just growing pains for the segment.

The latest hubbub surrounding Tesla centered on the “below-average” reliability score the electric car maker got from Consumer Reports following a reader survey. For a car that averages nearly $100,000 in purchase price, it is alarming to know faulty door handles could keep drivers locked out or that a new drivetrain may be necessary after a few years, warranty-covered or not. Likewise, the BMW i3 had enough bugs in its powertrain that readers rated it less-than-great on the reliability front.

Still, the survey was far from exhaustive. Only five electric vehicles and two plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) received ratings, with both PHEVs coming in at average reliability. (The Nissan Leaf was the sole EV to hit the “average” mark of the five.) For all the negative publicity that surrounded the low score for the Model S, some more tests could have pushed EVs into a overall favorable rating had CR’s team widened its focus.

In fact, the blueprint seems clear enough from the ratings of hybrid (non-plug-in) vehicles. Seven of 11 hybrids received excellent reliability ratings while the other four were average or better. None were below average. As for the PHEVs, both the Ford C-MAX Energi and Chevy Volt were average on reliability, so you can chalk that segment up as 100% reliable if you want to get technical about it.

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Another element of the Consumer Reports survey reminded us what plug-in cars have on their side: owner enthusiasm. From the data that continues to roll in, electric vehicle drivers usually don’t go back to gasoline once they get a taste of EV driving. In Ford’s study on plug-ins, 92% of EV drivers said would buy another. The trick seems to be getting people into them in the first place.

Tesla’s remarkable reputation among its customers seconds this notion. Though its poor reliability marks caused Consumer Reports to take back its recommendation for the Model S, 97% of the buyers who responded to the survey (sometimes, negatively) said they would buy the same Tesla again.

Love for driving electric is spreading, and the better the performance, the greater the love tends to be. We have a hard time conceding the segment is unreliable as a whole with such a small sample of cars getting ranked by owners and so few models in existence overall. On another note, the segment is so young we can expect some bugs to be worked out in future models. (Gasoline cars, for their part, seem to notch a recall every week after a hundred or so years on the market.)

With appreciation for electric cars at an all-time high, we don’t see below-average reliability ratings keeping the segment back anymore than we see those excellent hybrid ratings giving that segment a boost. The revolution will continue apace.

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