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5 cheap electric cars to buy until Tesla delivers on its $25,000 promise

September 23, 2020, 10:00 PM UTC

Tesla’s Battery Day on Tuesday was a showcase of things to come—most important, cheaper things to come. CEO Elon Musk’s electric car company presented innovations that it says will let it create, within three years, a competitive electric car that costs just $25,000. Investors did not love the long-term promise, and Musk has failed to meet his promises often enough to justify skepticism. So you may be waiting longer than three years for a truly low-budget Tesla.

The good news is there are already some relatively affordable EVs available, and we’ve put together a list of the five least expensive. The bad news is that none have a 2020 sticker price anywhere close to $25,000, and all the least expensive EVs come with significant tradeoffs. Tesla is focused on batteries because they’re currently a big portion of EV cost, and that’s also why most cheaper EVs suffer from short ranges: They’re cheaper primarily because they have smaller batteries.

While reviewing this list, it’s worth remembering that the real ownership cost for EVs is significantly lower than for gas-burning cars. With fewer moving parts, EVs break down less, and in most places, plug-in electricity is cheaper per mile than gas. Analysts at Loup Ventures—a pro-EV investment fund—estimated that Tesla Model 3 owners would save nearly $9,000 on fuel and maintenance over five years compared with drivers of a Toyota Camry, which uses gasoline.

Finally, we’re only including vehicles available commercially in the U.S. (with one semi-exception), and all prices are for the car’s base model. That means you would wind up paying more for extras. Further complicating the picture is that cars from many automakers will still get you federal tax credits of up to $7,500, but GM and Tesla models do not qualify, so the effective price advantage of the cheapest cars on our list is even larger than it appears.

5. Chevy Bolt: $36,620

Chevy’s respected answer to the Model 3 has a very solid range of 259 miles and a fast-charging option. On the downside, you get an interior that multiple testers described as “cheap” and a design that’s not going to catch anyone’s attention. Other than a Tesla, though, this is the most practical semi-affordable EV out there.

4. Tesla Model 3: $35,000

With 220 miles of range and acceleration of 0–60 in 5.6 seconds, the standard Model 3 ticks all the boxes at a moderate price. But its checkered history also helps explain why markets were underwhelmed by Tesla’s promises of a $25,000 car in three years.

In 2016, Elon Musk promised that the Model 3 would be available for as little as $35,000, helping trigger a flood of preorders that arguably kick-started Tesla’s hype train. But the cheapest Model 3 didn’t become a reality until early 2019, after more expensive Model 3s had been available for more than a year and a half. And even now, the car is not easy to buy at the advertised price, presumably because it’s not very profitable to Tesla. Like the best stuff at In-N-Out Burger, the base Model 3 is on Tesla’s secret menu: You have to call a sales representative directly to order one.

3. Hyundai Ioniq Electric: $33,045

Like some other Hyundai products, the Ioniq is a bit of a dark horse. With a base range of 170 miles and solid fast charging, you’ll probably only suffer moderate range anxiety. “Moderate” would also apply to nearly every other feature of the car, from a ho-hum design to middling performance, though its safety and driver-aid features, including pedestrian detection and collision avoidance, have been praised. So if you’re just looking for a reasonably priced four-door hatchback/sedan that happens to run on batteries, the Ioniq might be the one.

2. Nissan Leaf: $32,535

The Leaf has been around for nearly a decade, but many reviewers still think the base model cuts a few too many corners to hit a lower price point. It has a range of just 150 miles, usable but relatively paltry by 2020 standards. Its entertainment package is underwhelming, and its interior is, to quote Car and Driver, “a sea of black plastic.” On the plus side, though it looks tiny from the outside, the Leaf has been praised for offering loads of storage space within.

1. Mini Cooper SE: $30,750

The EV your mother warned you about, for better and for worse. The Mini SE’s price tag involves some major tradeoffs, above all a range of just 110 miles and an uncomfortable interior. But the base model is feature-rich and well built.

And range isn’t everything: The SE apparently lives up to the Mini legacy by being deliriously fun to drive. With the same motor as the BMW i3S, it packs 181 horsepower, significantly more than the base Leaf (147 hp) or Ioniq (134 hp) while pushing far less weight. As a result, critics say its road grip is “ferocious.” So as long as you’re doing doughnuts in the parking lot instead of heading for the Grand Canyon, you can have a lot of fun over 110 miles. And with full incentives, the SE almost hits Tesla’s $25,000 target, without the wait.

Bonus Round: Changli New Energy Mini Electric Car for Adults: $1,200 (with battery)

Though we’ve limited this list to mainstream manufacturers, we must make one exception. No, that’s not a joke or a typo—this is a working electric car that can be ordered for $1,200 directly from a Chinese factory through Alibaba (though you’ll have to jump through some import hoops).

Though severely underpowered and with an apparently untrustworthy speedometer, the NEMECA “actually feels like a car,” according to Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky, who not only bought the pocket-change vehicle, but even allowed his own child to ride in the back seat. In addition to the core feature of actually moving under its own power (unlike, say, a Nikola), the NEMECA features a working radio, fans and defrosters, a dome light, and, most stunning of all to Torchinsky, a backup camera. Unfortunately, its toylike body almost certainly makes it illegal to drive on many U.S. public roads—but hey, sometimes you make sacrifices for a great deal.