Note: Jump down to “Renault Twizy” if you want to skip my general notes on electric cars and how I got into them.
I have to admit — it’s been great fun and a lucky pleasure to test drive so many electric cars. Cars aren’t historically a big part of my life. I’ve been car free for ~11 years (yes, “car free” is definitely the right way to say it). As I wrote years ago, despite loving a car-free lifestyle, I have switched from being a car hater to an EV lover.
The initial thing that got me into electric cars was clear: an interest in helping to stabilize our climate, rather than lead our followers into a scorched-Earth scenario. Initially, like many in the “super-green” world, I wasn’t too keen on EVs, as I had heard “they aren’t as good for the environment as people say” … because batteries. (I later found out how far off base that claim was.)
With a city planning background, I knew, and still know, that cars destroy quality of life in a city, and “destroy cities” if you want to get philosophical about it. Biking, walking, and mass transit are much preferred for healthy cities. However, several years ago, I worked as the director of a nonprofit focused completely on promoting bicycling, walking, mass transit, and smart growth / sustainable development, and I know all too well how hard it is to change cultural habits, cultural ideals, and basic assumptions much of the population holds. Cars aren’t going away, and certainly not before we absolutely have to tackle global warming and reduce transport emissions.
But that was only part of what got me into EVs. After covering them for a while due to their green benefits, I finally drove some, and — “holy cow(!), these are bloody awesome!” That was essentially my reaction, verbatim. With the smooth and quiet motor, and the great gift of instant torque, electric cars had snagged me. I was a convert, and was ready to convert others. “Everyone” should know about EVs, and how great they are — not just that they are green. (… And hopefully word will spread quickly enough to make a big dent in our bloated and societally suicidal carbon emissions.)
As many of you well know, we have moved more and more into EV coverage here on CleanTechnica. The reasons are varied: They are much more connected to consumers’ lives than solar power, wind power, geothermal power, etc., and CleanTechnica has always been focused to a large degree on consumers. While solar and wind and other cleantech topics are a lot of fun to cover, they are mostly about costs & policies, and the path had gotten pretty clear: solar & wind are increasingly cheaper than any other electricity options. The path to victory is about as clear as Novak Djokovic’s path in many a tournament: end the game with a lower number than anyone else, and walk away with the promised cash. They can still be interesting to cover, but the industries are more mature and predictable than the current EV market. And, again, they are less tied to the whims of consumer emotions, experience, and taste. And, yes, as seems to be the norm throughout my various careers, I’m drawn to the behavior-change aspects of electric cars — for consumers, the auto industry, and the media.
Anyhow, getting back to the topic at hand, the lucky experience of driving so many different electric cars recently struck me, and I thought I should write a short nutshell review of each of them compared to the rest of the flock. I’ve written longer reviews of these cars following my first (and in some cases 2nd/3rd/4th) drives of them, so I will link to those reviews, but the aim here is to give a potent taste of what stands out about each of these cars (pros and cons).
I will go in order of cost, as I have done in this comprehensive article on all of the electric cars on the US & EU markets.
Cute, yet cool look on the outside and inside. Simple, but in a good way. Super fun to drive. Tiny. The best motor-powered city commuter for such a low price (if you can find one), and one of the coolest “toys” I can think of. Yes, if I were super rich, I’d have one in my garage alongside a few of the other cars on this list, but it’d essentially be a toy.
Small, & fun to drive partly because of that, but not as cool, cute, or fun as the Twizy, and had quite a “cheap” feel to the interior that I didn’t like. Many owners seem to love this car, but it didn’t thrill me or capture my heart.
Simple and clean feel. Good, open view out the window. Surprisingly high feeling to the seating position. Fun acceleration that beats a PHEV or ICE car, but not more than you’d expect for an electric car at its price. Some might call it an econobox, as there isn’t much in the way of luxury inside, while others see it as everything you need to get the job done. One of the best values for the money among the cars on the market today.
A solid family car with ample space, good comfort, enough acceleration to have some genuine fun, and enough cool tech to feel like you are driving into the future … just not ahead of a Tesla or the i3, of course, and let’s the honest, the navigation tech could jump into the 21st century. Again, one of the best “value for the money” options on the market. If I had to get a new car before the Tesla Model 3 or Chevy Bolt came out, the LEAF would have a lot of points in the “get this one” category.
Sporty, cute, fun. But very space limited, even in the front seats. Navigation reminiscent of the first Mario Bros., but the navigation in EVs at a similar price isn’t much better/different. If you just have a bag/backpack/groceries to throw in the back most of the time, and don’t need to shuffle kids or colleagues from place to place more than once in a blue moon, this may be your #1 option … if you live in California or Oregon, the only places it’s sold.
A cute city car that feels quite a bit like a “normal” car and doesn’t thrill in any particular area, but does get the job done about as well as anything else in its price range. Several options for regenerative braking may be a plus for people sharing the car with a spouse/kid, or for people who like to play with the driving options in different scenarios. The interior plastics are somewhat dominant and overwhelming, making the car feel cheaper than a LEAF or Zoe. Seating and navigation weren’t ideal for me, but I could live with them if the wife preferred the e-Up! over competing models. (Note: she didn’t.)
Admittedly, I’m going on my experience with the 1st-gen Volt, as I haven’t yet seen a 2nd-gen Volt in the flesh. The Volt interior feel wasn’t my thing — felt a bit too bulky and lacking in space. And the acceleration was okay, but didn’t thrill me. (Note: I drove the Volt just after driving the Tesla Model S, BMW i3, BMW i8, and Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, so my mind may not have been calibrated well enough to give the Volt the correct judgement.) It was nice to have the smooth and quiet drive of a fully electric car despite it being a PHEV, and I know the gas backup is a big convenience booster, but I’m more drawn to the interior feeling of other models in this price range, and more drawn to the idea of 100% electric life except on very rare occasions where I need a REx or need to rent a car gar. I can see why people love the car, but it doesn’t call my name.
The space; my God, the space! After driving so many smaller electric cars, the Outlander felt like a beast made for giants. It’s a big vehicle. Unfortunately, that + the small battery and motor held the oomph back and muted the fun of instant torque. Tech was decent and comfort was decent, but not a Tesla Model X or even a Volvo XC90 T8 … but you can’t expect much more for the price. If you’re looking for an electric SUV on a budget … oh yeah, this is the only option. That said, it’s a great all-around vehicle. Just needs more electric range and maybe a little more fun on the pedal.
Audi A3 e-Tron (which is essentially also the Volkswagen Golf GTE)
Sporty feeling to the seats, but man, PHEVs just don’t compare to fully electric cars for me. Driving this one right after driving the Renault Zoe, I was actually let down so much that it’s hard to find nice things to say about the e-Tron. The Zoe just had a lot more beat and bump off the line. For sure, the A3 e-Tron was a lot more fun to drive than the BMW gas car I was renting, and the interior was of a quality that I could enjoy on a daily basis. The tech was neat, but nothing very special. All in all, the A3 e-Tron just seemed to promise more than it could deliver, or maybe I was just expecting too much as a long-time Audi fan, or maybe it was just that the dealership had run the battery down to 0 and we had to spend a long time driving on gas to get some electricity back in it, but not enough for the car to really turn into rainbows and butterflies when I stepped on the accelerator.
I love the i3, as you’ve likely noticed by now. It is a lot of fun to accelerate in, has a great seating position (in the front — is a bit tight in the back), has a wonderfully open view out the windows, and is on the cutting edge with interior and exterior materials. Loading and unloading kids also seems quite easy compared to other cars. Navigation tech isn’t that exciting, unfortunately, and space in the back & trunk is a bit lacking. But man, it is so torquey and the handling is so much fun!
The ELR is the surprise horse in the race, but probably more because it was so criticized for not competing in its class that I was pleasantly surprised by what it offered. Yes, at its price point, you’d probably expect more space in the back … and, well, everywhere. But if you have money to throw around and just want a car for fun solo or duo driving, man, the ELR is a blast to drive! I still favor the i3 when you get into this dollar range, but I can fully understand someone preferring the ELR. If the style and feel of the ELR suits you better than the style and feel of a Tesla, I can even understand the compelling if controversial pull to buck the mainstream trend and going with the Caddie. But let’s be honest, this is no family car.
A spaceship that can’t fly … but just barely. The Model S is a land boat with rockets on the back, but Star Trek rockets rather than the noisy, flaming ones. Silicon Valley jumped into your ride to dazzle you along your journey, while the interior is sparse otherwise — either Zen-like or lacking in the niceties of life, depending on your vantagepoint and whether you have a soft drink in your hand (before your EV Annex console arrives). But man, that power — it’s just hard to focus on anything else when you have it under your foot or throwing you back in the seat … even nearby cop cars.
The best vehicle on the planet is how Elon essentially described it, while saying that depends on if you prefer a sedan (Model S) or SUV/crossover/minivan (Model X). And I’ll say that I think it is the best vehicle on the planet, even though I don’t typically like SUVs. Naturally, I haven’t driven every car on the market, but I don’t have to — checking down the boxes, this one comes out on top, even before the fun (if they aren’t the opposite for you) of the bird doors and invisible chauffeur doors, supersplendulous windshield, and amazing sound & driver-tech systems. Luxurious seating, insane — nay, ludicrous — acceleration, a view to the stars and the moon, and enough space for the Swiss Family Robinson crew — I don’t know how you can’t fall in love with this one.
Luxury went off the deep end here, and even if you are turned off by excess, it is hard not to enjoy the seats in this elegant Porsche. Porsche aims to make driving a pleasure that carefully balances life on the track and life in the city, and the Panamera S E-Hybrid lives up to the company’s name. But Porsche hit a single here rather than a home run, and in a competition with Tesla, that means it lost. If all you care about is the comfort of the seats, the passenger seating & AC controls in the back, and the badge or styling of a Porsche, the Panamera is for you. Otherwise, let’s note the obvious: there’s a reason why thousands more people buy a Model S every month than a slightly electrified Panamera.
BMW likes to use the phrase “the ultimate driving machine,” but the BMW i8 is not the ultimate driving machine. It is a ton of fun, it is a super awesome driving machine, but I’d rather take the i3 around the city and I’d rather take the Model S on a road trip. Where’d I rather take the i8? To a fashion show — and that’s not an insult. You can judge styling for yourself, but I think the i8 is the coolest-looking electric car on the market, and I would certainly enjoy gazing at it sitting in my parking space, but I’d need to check the 12V battery once in awhile, since I’d be keeping the i3 or a Tesla warm while neglecting the beautiful and fun — but just not quite as good — i8. (OK, I’m probably being a little melodramatic. If I were a billionaire, I’d probably drive the i8 around once a month to enjoy the acceleration + handling + styling, which even cool on the inside + HUD. Though, let’s be honest — I’d really just have it as a piece of art and a toy to let friends play with.)
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