2017 Is Here: Here Are the Top 10 Electric Car Companies
Picking the Top 10 electric car makers now involves making some choices as the number of vehicles available increases. Plug-ins are trending in key markets around the country, although much of the action remains focused in California and other West Coast states. By the end of 2016 the total number of plug-in vehicles (that’s pure battery electrics and plug-in hybrids) sold this year topped 150,000. It’s a year of exponential growth with the expectation this 2017 will be another just like it. We think we’ll see many more miles driven on electrons this year.
This list is subjective and weighted toward functionality with an emphasis on fun, but also factors in sales numbers. Enjoy! Let us know what you think.
Our New Favorites — the Volkswagen e-Golf & Audi A3 e-tron
These little electric rocket ships have now been on the market long enough to establish a good coterie of adherents. While the Golf holds down the 5th spot in pure electric car sales for 2015, we put it at number one for several reasons.
German engineering – das electric
First, it’s a Golf, which is a great small car package. Its cousin, the plug-in hybrid (PHEV) Audi A3, is a similar delight to drive and has been holding its own in that market segment.
The Volkswagen e-Golf is very maneuverable, bringing all of the good suspension work of the seventh generation Golf into an electric car. The packaging of the Golf is another plus. It’s got a decent-size interior with room for five (in a pinch, or four comfortable adults) plus storage behind the hatch in back. While the move to electric drive in an existing platform hasn’t allowed Volkswagen the opportunity to really optimize for the new powertrain, we have no complaints about the standard Golf layout. Then there’s performance: it’s fast, as most electrics are, smart with different regen levels and driving settings, and handles like all the other gas and diesel Golfs, which is to say—great! And the $33,450 e-Golf has been joined by a distant cousin, the Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid, which we recently tested and came away very pleased with what we found. VW has made it clear more plug-ins are coming. We’ve driven recent versions of the e-Golf and everything we said in 2014 still holds true.
2. Tesla – the 4,800-pound Gorilla
Tesla is described as disruptive technology, but in reality the company has done what auto companies have done for a little more than a century—build great cars and match them up with owners who appreciate them. The Model S is the best-selling plug-in car in the U.S. for 2016, followed by the Model X. Almost two-thirds of the battery electric cars sold in the U.S. had Tesla badges on them. We recently spent some time in a brand-new ludicrously loaded Model X P100D and can verify the appeal of the cars.
The roomy Model S luxury sedan starts at about $66,000 with four battery pack configurations, but now offers five all-wheel drive version that feature even faster acceleration, topping out with the P100D model. Production of the Roadster, the company’s initial product, ended after deliveries totaling 2,500. The Model S electric range goes from a nominal 219 miles to 331 miles per charge in its big battery configurations.
Tesla helped former shareholder Toyota to bring back the Toyota RAV4 EV, an electric SUV and also aided its other OEM shareholder, Daimler (which also has since divested its Tesla shares), with the Smart ED and B-Class Electric.
Now known as simply Tesla (not Tesla Motors since its merger with Elon Musk’s Solar City), has booked more than 350,000 reservations for its upcoming Model 3, its affordable ($35,000) smaller model due to start production in 2017. Tesla continues to battle with auto dealers in many states as it tries to establish a direct-sales model, although founder Musk has admitted his sales plan may not work when they move to the more mass-market Model 3, which he hopes to sell in volumes of up to 500,000 per year.
- Chevrolet Bolt/Volt – One-Two Punch in the Electric Gut
General Motors has done something remarkable, enough so that we were tempted to jump them up to the top of this chart. They have done two major things to deserve the attention they’re getting. First was to introduce the second generation Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car (which gets tossed in with plug-in hybrids even though its system really takes a different approach). It followed the new Volt with the all-electric 238-mile range Bolt this year.
Beating Tesla to the market with the Bolt was quite a coup, particularly with a car as well-executed as this EV is. And that takes nothing away from the redesigned Volt hatchback that has 50+ miles of electric range and more than 400 miles per gasoline fill-up range in its second generation.
The Bolt is priced at $37,495 before various rebates and incentives kick in while the Volt has a starting price of about $34,490, but also is eligible for federal and state incentives. Sales of the Bolt just started in December, but we predict it will likely be the best-selling in 2017. If the Volt continues it reign atop the PHEV group that would be quite a two-fer for Chevy and GM.
We’ve spent quite a bit of time in this car and think it’s a keeper. It’s won more than a few accolades. The versatility to drive around town and potentially commute as an electric car (Chevy has documented that most drivers will go more than 1,000 miles between fill-ups), coupled with the ability to take longer trips relying on the gasoline “range extender” makes it a great choice for a one-car household.
Also at GM, but phasing out are the all-electric Chevrolet Spark EV; it’s a fun city car with 80-mile range between charges. Sales are tapering off for the Cadillac ELR, which uses a plug-in hybrid drive system similar to the Volt, as it goes out of production.
With all of its Bolt/Volt news, rumors keep circulating that GM may expand its offering to include other brands. It will introduce a Cadillac CT6 PHEV in spring 2017, but more models may be in the offing.
- Nissan Leaf – the Standard Bearer
Nissan is the sales leader of affordable pure electric cars and is staying the course in its commitment to this technology. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn reiterated recently that his company will support electric drive while also offering plug-in hybrids and fuel cell electric cars and hybrid-electric models.
The company’s flagship car is the Leaf, a five-door, five-seat hatchback that is the right size and range for many who drive around 100 miles daily. Nissan makes the Leaf and its batteries in Tennessee for the U.S. market and bumped up the range this last year. It is promising a 200+ mile range version soon. Used Leafs are now coming off lease and onto the market, presenting another option for eco-buyers.
BMW – the Ultimate Electric Driving Machine?
BMW has charged into the electric car space with two strong contenders—the hot-selling i3 and the i8 plug-in hybrid supercar. We’ve driven both and are impressed by both, as are many others.
The i3 (which actually comes in two versions—a pure battery electric and a ranged-extended EV) is the fourth best-selling plug-in car in the U.S. in 2016, behind only the two Teslas and the Leaf. The i8 is no slouch, either, sitting solidly in the Top 10 plug-in hybrids. Not bad for a car that lists for $136,500. The i3 starts at $42,400. Like most manufacturers, BMW has begun to launch more plug-in models, including the 2016 X5 xDrive40e that we tested, and plug-in versions of the 3-Series and 7-Series.
6. Ford – Variety Is Their Spice of Life
Ford has made a commitment to fuel efficiency that starts with their widely used EcoBoost engines (basically smaller turbocharged direct-injection engines that can replace larger non-turbo port-injection powerplants). Ford has a trio of plug-in vehicles that are the tip of the spear for its environmental efforts. They start with the full-electric Ford Focus and two plug-in hybrids, the Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi (both of which also come in a plain-Jane hybrid version).
Sales have been steady, but the Fusion Energi in particular had a great year and the pair were the second and third best-selling models in the PHEV sales behind the Volt. They sacrifice some trunk space for the added batteries (compared to the hybrid models), but deliver solid performance and enough for 21 miles of electric-only driving (which is being bumped up slightly in 2017). Ford is adding a hybrid version of the best-selling vehicle in the U.S., the F-150 pickup as well.
But that’s not all. Ford is also pushing strongly into the mobility space while also using its electrified vehicles like the Fusion as the test-bed for its autonomous vehicle projects. It’s recent smart mobility projects included adding a crowd-sourced shuttle service, Chariot, and an e-bike sharing program.
- Toyota – Big in Hybrids; Betting on Fuel Cells & Electrics
Toyota, passing nine million hybrid sales worldwide at mid-2016, has dabbled in both plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars, but then seemed focused on fuel cell electric cars, which uses hydrogen to produce electricity on board and power the electric motors.
Toyota’s Prius Plug-In Hybrid has been renamed the Prius Prime and is more distinguished from the standard Prius than in the past. The new model has a longer EV range than its predecessor. Toyota has had some sales success, and has noe promised a new push into electric vehicles. Clean Fleet Report tested the original model, comparing it with the better-known non-plug-in version.
Toyota also offered a limited model in California: the only all-electric SUV, the RAV4 EV, with an advertised 150-mile electric range (produced with some help from Tesla, in which Toyota was a shareholder) and earlier did a limited EV run of its minicar, the iQ. Now on the market is the Mirai, a fuel-cell sedan with a 350-mile range and a $57,000 price tag (it delivered more than 1,000 Mirais in 2016). Toyota offers 12 hybrid models (Toyota & Lexus) with similar electric motors and advanced battery packs, sometimes shared with its electric cars.
- Kia/Hyundai – Coming on Strong
Don’t forget the Korean plug-ins
Kia has its Soul EV on the market and its making its presence know. We’ve had a chance to test it. Along with its parent company Hyundai, Kia is scheduled to launch two plug-in hybrids (the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima) and a Hyundai Ioniq sub-brand that, like the Ford Fusion, will have a hybrid and plug-in hybrid, but also will add a pure electric model. We covered the introduction. In addition, the ambitious company already has launched the Kia Niro dedicated hybrid, which impressed us as well. Hyundai has been leasing its Tucson fuel cell electric vehicles in Southern California for several years now.
- Daimler Begins an Electric Onslaught
In America only with electric motors
Daimler is the automotive giant that owns Mercedes-Benz and Smart and also was a Tesla stockholder. While it has had two pure EVs on the market for a while, this year it added three plug-in hybrids—the C350We, GLE 550e and S550 Plug-in.
The two-seat Smart ED has been selling in small numbers (many to the company’s Car2Go car-sharing subsidiary). The Smart ED minicar went through three generations and we’ve driven the latest version, but only with the gas engine. Mercedes has two versions of its subcompact B-Class, a pure electric with 87 miles of range that we recently had a chance to drive and a fuel cell electric vehicle with a more than 300 miles of range, the only versions of that car available in the U.S. The electric B-Class and Smart ED are at the bottom of the sales list for 2016, selling less than 1,300 units between the two models. The company has announced a massive investment in electric drive vehicles so the expectation is that every year more plug-ins will be coming to the market. The next generation fuel cell car also should surface soon.
- Fiat – Small, But a Mighty Fine, Fun EV
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is selling the Fiat 500e somewhat reluctantly, but don’t let that turn you away. Even though FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne famously claims the company
loses $14,000 on every $32,780 500e it sells, they do need to sell quite a few of them to meet California’s ZEV (zero emission vehicle) mandate so take advantage while you can.
It’s a fun all-electric city car. We thought it was the most fun car of the EV bunch until the e-Golf came out and trumped it both in functionality and fun. Very affordable (sub-$100/month) lease deals have been available for this spunky EV in California (its main market). It manages to carry through the Italian charm and personality found in its gas models. The major drawback, which could be an advantage in an urban location, is the small size of the vehicle. As a two-door with a small back seat, its capability of carrying four adults is limited.
That’s the Top 10, but the good news is there are even more models on the market and some have come and gone already. Coda Automotive, with its warmed-over Chinese sedan, has departed, but Fisker (now Karma) Automotive has revived its high-end plug-in hybrid under new Chinese ownership.
Honda sold a limited number of its Fit EVs and similarly stopped selling the Accord Plug-in Hybrid. Like Toyota and Hyundai, it is focusing on Clarity fuel cell electrics as its main EV strategy going forward, but could return to a pure EV and PHEV depending on market trends. It continues to promote ideas like an integrated car and home energy system that would depend on a plug-in car.
Volvo has just started selling its plug-in hybrid version of the XC90 SUV, though numbers are expected to remain low. We tested it recently and came away very impressed. Volvo has indicated more plug-in models will follow.
Mitsubishi still offers the i (formerly i-MiEV), though the company skipped the 2015 model year, but the 2016 we tested wasn’t much different than earlier models. The i fits into tight parking spaces and tight electric car buyer budgets, starting at about $29,000. It’s a very Japanese model five-door, four-passenger hatchback. The i has an electric range of 62 miles (EPA adjusted) with a 16kWh lithium battery. Although it’s been modified for the US market it still feels very much like the Japanese-market original, which is to say, less substantial than many of its competitors. Mitsubishi also reiterated its intent to bring a plug-in version of its popular Outlander SUV to the U.S. this coming year (as has been promised for several years).
Then there’s Porsche (another VW affiliate) with its plug-in Panamera sedan, Cayenne SUV and 918 sports car also in the market. Other companies have teased plug-ins, but we’ll wait until we see hardware before
A plug-in Porsche
California and seven other states reaffirmed their goal to have 3.3 million electric cars (including plug-in hybrids and fuel cells) on the road by 2025. The numbers are basically accounted for in the ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) mandate that the states have in place, but rely on a steep ramp up of sales after 2020. Based on sales reports, more than 500,000 plug-in vehicles have been sold in the U.S. since the Tesla roadster was introduced in 2008. More than half of them were in California.
There is a lot of innovation from around the world that did not make this Top 10 List, which focuses on the current U.S. market. Please bookmark this Top 10 List and check back as we update. Exciting new electric cars are being driven on the U.S. streets and freeways. Nissan is an early mover with battery-electric cars, now eclipsed by Tesla and General Motors has led the way with plug-in hybrids, but competition is heating up and new models due during the next year or two could dramatically alter the field. The winner will be the customer.