We Should Oppose The Rise Of The $80,000 Compliance Car

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The recent final announcement of the Polestar 3 electric SUV really got me disgusted with the EV enthusiast community and most media outlets that cover EVs. Only about half of the news articles I’ve seen make an issue of the vehicle’s $80,000+ price tag (usually in a back-handed subtle way), and most enthusiasts who aren’t Tesla fanbois didn’t have a problem with the price, either. One of my fellow writers here did get this right, if you’re curious.

Why does an expensive EV bother me? Well, it’s not just one expensive electric vehicle that’s giving me heartburn. It’s the fact that many manufacturers just can’t get over the hump and start offering anything more affordable.

In theory, typical automotive trickle-down technology is supposed to, well, trickle down. Even as recently as the 2000s, the most expensive cars all had high-tech efficient DOHC engines, while the bargain basement sometimes still came with ancient pushrod tech. But, what once was only available in a Cadillac eventually found its way into the Cavalier. We assumed that the same thing would happen with EVs, with them first appearing in the top of the market and working their way down to the average and then the below average price.

But, I’m not seeing that happen (with two or three notable exceptions that I’ll get to in a minute). The $40,000 Ford F-150 Lightning? They start at about $52,000 now. If you want the bigger battery pack for towing or highway use, that’s going to cost you at least $80,000. The Rivian R1T? It starts at $73,000 for the most basic version. The Tesla Model 3? Almost $50k for the most basic version that was supposed to be $35,000.

None of these vehicles are bad vehicles like the compliance cars of yesteryear. They’ve got adequate range in their most basic configurations, they’re on dedicated EV platforms (no converted ICE designs that handle poorly), and they’ve got mainstream appeal. But, they represent what we keep seeing with new vehicle announcements.

Instead of seeing the price of EVs drop, it seems most manufacturers are perfectly content to keep their EV offerings at or above the average price of a new car, and that’s during the crazy pricing of 2022. Only a few vehicles come in below $45,000. The VW ID.4 and the Kia EV6 start at around $40k, for example. To get any cheaper, you have to get one of the Bolts (EV or EUV), or a Nissan LEAF, or buy something very used.

Instead of oohing and ahhing at every new EV that hits the market, we need to start looking more critically at pricing. If a company has some expensive cars, but they’re also making a decent effort to offer something with electric drive around $30,000, we should be happy with that company for pushing the EV transition forward. If a company keeps releasing vehicle after vehicle after vehicle that’s priced in the $60,000+ range, they’re just trying to make some luxury bucks and don’t really care about moving their whole fleet forward.

Perhaps more importantly, these expensive EVs (especially those in the $80k+ range) are still subsidized, even if there are price caps on the tax credits now. In many places, there are ZEV requirements that manufacturers have to comply with, and when they don’t build enough EVs, they have to go to an EV-only company like Tesla or Rivian to get a pass.

If a company is going to only sell luxury cars and never anything affordable, should we really be letting that count toward any regulatory requirements? In the beginning, that was a good thing, but now some manufacturers are taking the easy way out and offering some low-volume products to meet requirements and selling them for high prices. It’s just a reincarnation of the “compliance car,” but with more zeroes on the window sticker.

The buyers of expensive gas vehicles shouldn’t be paying a share of their neighbor’s EV price while most people still can’t afford one at all, and nothing is happening to meet the goals of the subsidy (an EV transition).

Who’s Doing Good Here

There are some manufacturers who deserve some credit for doing the right thing.

Probably the biggest example is GM. They’re not only selling some lower priced EVs (the Bolt and Bolt EUV), but they have liquid cooling and reasonable range. Plus, they’ve got more reasonable prices in the pipeline for better cars (like the Equinox EV), and they’re helping Honda get their act together, too. They’re really leading the charge for affordable EVs.

I would be wrong to not mention Nissan here, too. The LEAF has always been a more affordable option, and it still is. The LEAF Plus even has decent range. But, I wouldn’t put them in the same camp as GM because they’ve cut an important corner to get there (air-cooled battery packs). Even so, for people who don’t live in the desert and only rarely rapid charge, it’s still a very usable EV that more people can afford.

Volkswagen, Kia, and Hyundai also deserve some credit for their affordable options with decent capabilities/range. They aren’t as affordable as what GM and Nissan offer, but they’re still a little below average on new car prices. Mazda, Toyota, and BMW also have some low price options worth mentioning, but they have some serious corner cuts that don’t make for a decent value proposition.

Everyone else doesn’t seem to want to sell affordable EVs, though. Or, they’ve got a plan to do it mañana, but in more of a New Mexico sense (tomorrow is always in the future, and never really comes).

How We Can Get There

I’d argue that the most important impetus for change is attitudes. We need to stop giving manufacturers a pass for more than one or two expensive EVs. By the time they’re building their second or third EV, they’d better be offering something under $40,000 unless they’re a luxury brand that doesn’t serve that market with their combustion vehicles at all (even under another brand name). It makes sense to start in the luxury market, but it doesn’t make sense to live there and only there forever.

Manufacturers need to know that their third expensive lux-o-barge is going to be mocked and ridiculed by people like me and by people on social media.

The other lever is public policy. We’re already starting to see reforms in things like tax credits that give manufacturers a kick in their complacency, but other things like ZEV credits need to incentivize affordable EVs, too.

Whatever we do, we need to be doing something here, because mass EV adoption isn’t going to happen when half of the population can’t afford to buy one.

Featured image: the popular “shut up and take my money” meme using a screenshot from Futurama. Fair use.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1773 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba