While electric vehicles are gaining momentum in the U.S., there’s still a long way to go. In December 2016, the segment’s peak month to date, plug-ins managed just a 1.5% market share. So breaking through to the mainstream (say, over 10%), remains a while away.
There are many theories as to why EVs have not caught on in America, but high cost for low return is the gist of it. Let’s start with the 2013 Ford Focus Electric, a car that offered 76 miles of driving range at a sticker price of $39,200. Even the most steadfast environmentalist would lean toward a brand-new Mercedes C-Class for the same cost. Products by Volkswagen, Smart, and Kia didn’t fare much better than Ford’s first EV.
In fact, only the Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, and Chevrolet Volt ever made hay on the sales charts. While automakers sputtered by sticking batteries in gas cars, the plug-in market’s top sellers had the opposite approach and were successful. As we enter the next generation of electric cars, we can’t help but think of models that would have done well if automakers ever made them (or exported them here).
They may be impossible, but who’s to say what would have happened if Detroit really tried? We call the right to the “chicken or the egg” theory here. Here are 10 EVs Americans wanted but never got.
1. Renault ZOE
This one is real. Renault ZOE was Europe’s best-selling EV in 2015 and 2016, but because the automaker doesn’t do business in America, we never got it. There was nothing particularly magical about the Renault ZOE. The thing is, it wasn’t as hard to look at as the Smart Electric Drive, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, or Chevrolet Spark EV. Renault’s mini electric car offered solid performance without embarrassing its driver. In 2016, a model featuring over 180 miles of range hit the market. All the while, the Renault ZOE was a good value. Go figure.
2. Ford Focus Energi
If you haven’t noticed, auto writers sometimes get carried away with car rumors. One such example was the possibility of a Ford Focus Energi that was floated for a few years. The theory was beautiful: Take the fun-to-drive Ford Focus Electric and make it a viable and economical plug-in hybrid. Electrifying what was then the world’s most popular car would have solved so many problems, and (if Ford Fusion Energi and Ford C-Max Energi are any predictors) it would have sold like hotcakes. Alas, it never happened.
3. Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV
We turn back to reality for this one. Like the Renault ZOE, the Mitsubishi Outlander has been a big seller in Europe since it debuted in 2013. How big, you ask? It had 56% of the plug-in market in 2014, and it led the pack each of the other three years, too. Again, the concept was not revolutionary: Take an SUV and give it a decent amount of electric range as a plug-in hybrid. Mitsubishi planned to bring it to America, but it got delayed at least four times. Next up is 2017, but we don’t want to get anyone excited.
4. A midsize Chevrolet Volt
The redesigned Chevrolet Volt gives green car lovers just about everything they could possibly want. There’s ample electric range (53 miles), excellent economy (106 MPGe), and enough total range to travel 420 miles without stopping. The only complaint you might lodge here concerns the car’s size. We can’t help but feel a bit constrained inside the Chevrolet Volt (front seat or back), and we’ve met bigger people in our lives. Make us a midsize Chevrolet Volt and we’ll show you a hot plug-in model. This one is much easier said than done, though.
5. Electric Toyota Prius
It’s almost so obvious that we didn’t think of it: How is there no electric Toyota Prius? Somehow, there’s a fuel-cell Toyota Mirai in existence that costs about $60,000, but you can’t find fuel for it anywhere. On the other hand, everyone has electrical outlets at home. Plus, everyone in California has a Toyota Prius. How this never happened defies common sense. Not to go negative, but we can’t think of a worse play than investing all that money in Toyota Mirai when a Toyota Prius EV would have been a smash hit.
6. BYD Tang
If we’ve learned anything from the Chinese market, it’s that EVs don’t have to necessarily cost a fortune to deliver the goods. Take the 2016 BYD Tang, for example. This fire-breathing plug-in hybrid SUV sports 500 horsepower and 50 miles of electric range (foreign cycle), yet it doesn’t quite cost $50,000. We’ll let those statistics speak for themselves.
7. All-electric Ford Fusion
This take is similar to the one calling out the Chevrolet Volt’s size. We’d like much more electric range in Ford Fusion than you get in the very convincing Fusion Energi model. An all-electric Ford Fusion would probably be impossible given the engine placement, weight restrictions, and other issues (i.e., price). However, one obvious solution to the segment’s early malaise would have been to take a midsize American car design everyone loved, and equip it with serious electric range. Even a 40-mile Ford Fusion Energi would be hot.
8. BYD Qin
Continuing with the Chinese-have-better-EVs-than-us theme, we’ll point out the attractive specs of the BYD Qin. This plug-in hybrid packs 300 horsepower, gets over 40 miles in electric mode, and would not top $30,000 once we claimed the federal tax credit. As milquetoast EVs and plug-ins crowded the U.S. market, the BYD Qin blithely hit 60 miles per hour in five seconds and sold in volume to Chinese consumers.
9. Tesla Model 3
This one isn’t a joke. Timing is everything, and Tesla Model 3 looks like it’s coming out about a year late, assuming it arrives toward the end of 2017. Clearly Tesla could not afford to build the car as battery prices were still high as of early 2016. Nor could the automaker clear the decks to make way for its affordable performance EV. But, wow, what a splash this car would have made — even at $40,000 — when consumers were absolutely exhausted with the segment late in 2015. It would have exploded. Sure, Tesla Model 3 will do great when it arrives, but what if it was already on the roads …
10. BMW i5
The funky BMW i3 and the gorgeous BMW i8 supercar were both minor hits, and they gave the brand real juice in the EV space. But after the early fascination with the BMW i3, we got a minor range boost and nothing else. What could have made waves was a larger sedan with a full electric powertrain, or something close to it. It could have hooked the luxury market and been on every green car driver’s wish list. Whenever Tesla had production issues, this theoretical BMW i5 would have dominated. But no such luck.