Where Are the Boring EVs?

October 17, 2019, 9:52 PM UTC

The Volkswagen Group is getting charged up, and doing so in two vastly different ways. 

In September, the car conglomerate’s prized Porsche showed off the long-awaited Taycan, its entry into the luxury electric vehicle (EV) space. Taycan has a properly Porsche name (it translates from Turkish origin as “the soul of a spirited young horse”), ultra-fast charging capability, 200-plus miles of range, and a slew of fancy tech features and controls in the cabin. It also starts at a price north of $150,000. Meanwhile, at Germany’s own Frankfurt Auto Show, Volkswagen debuted the ID.3, a little hatchback promising 341 miles of range. The car, which sadly won’t be coming to America in this configuration, looks a bit like a typical Volkswagen Golf, albeit with a jazzy teal two-tone paint job to mark it as exotic and futuristic. 

The big deal about the ID.3 is its very ordinariness—and its attempt at an ordinary price tag (starting at about $33,000 USD) combined with a big enough battery to ease range anxiety. We know the luxury EV market is here to stay, as the rise of Tesla and the long line of Porsche Taycan preorders (30,000 deposits so far) have proven it. But how far are we from having a fleet of perfectly plain EVs populating our roads—our standard soccer-dad crossovers, our prized pickups, and our kids’ first car? Where are the mundane, workaday EVs?

Porsche Taycan
A Taycan is in the final inspection during a show production opening the production of the Porsche Taycan, the first all-electric model of the sports car manufacturer.
Sebastian Gollnow—picture alliance via Getty Images

A Flashy Start

Rewind a decade, back to the dawn of our current electric car resurgence, and you’ll see the hasty evolution in how EVs are supposed to look and what they’re allowed to be. The first Nissan Leaf, released in 2010, resembled a bulbous rolling potato. Its signature look stemmed in part from the fact that Nissan based the car on the entry-level Versa. Part of the science-project aesthetic was clearly intentional, though, meant to appeal to the same kind of early adopters who swarmed to the pod-like Toyota Prius during the previous decade, when it was the driving darling of the green set.

That paradigm changed with Tesla. Elon Musk and company made electric driving sexy and attractive, stamping the brand’s vision of a zero-emissions luxury car onto our collective consciousness with the 2012 rollout of the Model S. Tesla pulled a double trick here. Reinventing the electric car as a premium product positioned it for success beyond just eco-focused buyers and helped to mask the steep cost of putting a big lithium-ion battery in a car.

Both of those market trends continue. Jaguar built the all-electric i-Pace, which, along with the likes of the Audi e-Tron and the Taycan, competes with the Tesla Model S in the high-end electric market. And the more affordable future-pods roll on, with the Chevy Bolt and BMW i3 finding modest sales in electric-friendly markets. 

Now, though, the U.S. auto market stands at the start of a third phase of electrified driving: EV everything. Most of the world’s major auto companies have pledged to electrify their lineups during the 2020s, selling a wide variety of hybrids and totally electric vehicles to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy targets. Electric pickup trucks are coming, not only from flashy startups like Tesla and Rivian but also from established automakers. So are big crossovers, small crossovers, vans and cars. It won’t be long before every major car model offers a hybrid or all-electric version; EV Ford Mustangs and F-150 full-size trucks are a few years away. 

So why does it feel like adoption of everyday EVs isn’t exactly imminent? Take a quick look at sales numbers. 

An Affordable EV Is Not Necessarily An Affordable Vehicle 

In California, the nation’s largest auto market and biggest EV market by far, electric vehicle sales rose by more than 63 percent to 51,750 EV sales in the first half of 2019. However, the strength of the much-anticipated Tesla Model 3 drove that rise. Tesla sold 33,000 Model 3s against just 4,482 Chevy Bolts and 2,034 for the Nissan Leaf. In other words: the less-flashy electric offerings from traditional automakers aren’t drumming up the sort of EVmania we’ve been lead to believe is inevitable.

A sleeker design, more robust charging infrastructure, and better tech features certainly aided Tesla’s strong sales. The steady drumbeat of Model 3 hype didn’t hurt, either. As usual, though, the prime culprit comes down to price. 

While Elon Musk ballyhooed the Model 3 as Tesla’s $35,000 everyman EV, it’s not exactly priced for the masses. Add on any options plus the new car fees and taxes, and the cost of even the base model can slip well over $40,000. (Meanwhile, Tesla’s federal tax credit is now down to $1,875, soon to disappear entirely.) And the competition isn’t doing much better. The Chevy Bolt starts north of $36,000. Nissan’s second-generation Leaf is a marked improvement over the original, but equipped with a 220-mile battery it also reaches the high $30,000s. The same is true of the Kia Niro and Hyundai Kona, fully electrified versions of popular small crossovers.

The Hyundai is a telling case study. The Kona EV is derived from the brand’s popular gasoline-powered car, and together the two versions won the 2019 North American Utility of the Year award. Publications like Car and Driver lauded the Kona EV as one of the best fully electric options on the market, with its 258-mile range outpacing the 240 miles of the Tesla Model 3. Upon the EV’s release, I personally heralded it as a sign of things to come, when electric powertrains finally will enter the anonymous crossovers that Americans just can’t stop buying. But Hyundai, despite some success in friendlier overseas markets, is selling the Kona EV in just a select few coastal states and had moved a paltry 1,751 units in the U.S. through July 2019. For comparison’s sake, that’s 40,000 fewer than the gasoline-powered Kona sold during the same time period.

[Note: For the sake of apples-to-apples comparison, I’m omitting EVs like the Volkswagen e-Golf and Fiat e500, whose limited range make them impractical and primary autos. For the same reason, this article doesn’t dive into plug-in hybrid vehicles—those that allow drivers to plug into a charger and travel a few dozen miles on electric power before a backup gas engine kicks on. PHEVs cratered in the first half of 2019, largely because GM discontinued the field’s standard-bearer, the Chevrolet Volt.] 

The Kona EV’s killer might just be the Kona. Hyundai’s gasoline version starts with an MSRP of $20,100, barely more than half the cost of its electric cousin. Even a buyer who can snag a fat federal tax credit plus a state or local rebate for buying electric can’t make up that kind of gap. Meanwhile, with gas prices more or less stagnant across America, drivers have one less incentive to buy a ride that doesn’t rely on the pump.

Volkswagen’s announced price for the ID.3 comes in at an estimated $33,000. That’s a step in the right direction, but VW stares down the same problem hanging over all the established car companies: Until batteries come down in price, at least enough that electric offerings become truly competitive with their internal combustion counterparts, budget-conscious Americans aren’t shifting into the EV lane.

Correction, Oct. 18, 2019: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Hyundai Kona models sold.