Electric Cars Are Best As City Cars: America May Follow Europe

By · December 05, 2012

Chevrolet Spark EV at the L.A. auto show

Chevrolet Spark EV at the L.A. auto show

It's difficult in Europe to find anybody who sees electric vehicles as anything more than city cars. The modest sales of the Nissan LEAF, which we view as a compact in Europe, only confirm this opinion, and manufacturers are enthusiastic about the upcoming Renault Zoe and Volkswagen E-Up! which will both launch next year. The Mitsubishi i and the Smart Electric Drive have paved the way, showing there is a demand for silent emission-free motoring in the city. But this is Europe, and America is different. Or is it?

Fiat 500 EV at the L.A. auto show

Fiat 500 EV at the L.A. auto show

Two new electric cars were introduced last week at the Los Angeles auto show: the Chevrolet Spark EV and the Fiat 500e. Both are among the smallest cars on the market. There was a shiny concept too, the BMW i3 Concept Coupe, but it's not much larger, and significantly shorter than a Ford Focus. Plans to sell those two new production vehicles in Europe are not being discussed, but their specifications leave little doubt. They are much more similar to the average European car than to the American one. So could it be that the American electric car buyer is more European in character?

There are few facts to support the idea. An electric car doesn't need a large grille to cool a fire-breathing engine. An electric car must be light and have an aerodynamic shape because it has much less energy aboard than a gas car. An electric car doesn't have an engine that roars. All this makes it subtler than any car with an internal combustion engine. The idea is that it's much easier to imagine an electric city car than an electric Ford Mustang.

BMW i3 Concept Coupe at the L.A. auto show

BMW i3 Concept Coupe at the L.A. auto show

Taking the idea further, a city car with an electric drivetrain is a great match. I've already written that the Smart Electric Drive is the best electric car I've ever driven. I've driven faster electric cars, but the little Smart perfectly matched all my expectations for the vehicle. It even exceeded them. Its 85-mile range is not an issue. Nobody's going to drive cross-country in a Smart. Some people may argue that a city car relegates the electric car to a secondary role, only your spouse's car, but what's wrong with that? If the goal is to have the largest number of EVs on the road, it's better to have many families with a large gas sedan for the weekend trip and a small electric city car for the everyday commute, than a very limited number of families with a large and expensive electric sedan for every use. So ultimately, everything will depend on price.

Chevrolet announced that the Spark EV will be a couple thousand dollars cheaper than the LEAF, but Fiat has not yet divulged pricing on the 500e. The price advantage for the Spark comes despite it being more powerful than the LEAF. It's also worth noting that both the Chevrolet Spark and the Fiat 500 have a much more daring design than the LEAF or Ford Focus. This kind of styling is expected in Europe. A compact car can be bland, but a city car cannot. So if we add the lower price with the better match of customer's expectations, the exciting design (angry birds or classic Italian), and the better performance, it looks like city cars will soon be the leader among pure electric cars in the American market .

Comments

· · 1 year ago

I don't think there's any value in judging the electric vehicle market by the compliance cars being produced by automakers who don't want to be in the game.

I do agree that electric cars are best for local driving, but that doesn't mean they have to be cramped eco penalty boxes. The Nissan LEAF is a great car with room to seat five adults.

The Telsa Model S is a full size luxury sedan with far more storage space than a similarly sized gas car and enough range for inter-city driving. It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to take up a bunch of space with a big blob of a gas engine.

The only people who can't image a high performance electric car are those who haven't experienced one. Even the LEAF can leave a smug muscle car owner left behind at the traffic light wondering what just happened when the EV owner pushed the pedal to the floor. With a car like the Tesla Roadster or Model S, there's nothing on the road that can match the smooth, instant acceleration of a powerful electric motor.

It's nice that electric cars are cheap to operate, convenient to fuel, nicer to the environment, better for the economy and national security, but it's the superiority of the electric drivetrain that will ultimately lead to widespread demand for these superior cars.

· Bret (not verified) · 1 year ago

I disagree entirely that EVs are best suited as city cars.

The new EVs, like the Volt and LEAF, are ideal for daily freeway commuters, who currently spend way too much money on gas. As soon as battery prices come down and ranges go up, there will be a lot more EVs on the freeways at rush hour. If you don't believe me, try counting Priuses.

America and Europe are very different in their lifestyles and transprtation needs. City EVs make a lot more sense in Rome than they do in Riverside, CA.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 1 year ago

Not everywhere is Riverside. NYC, Boston, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, etc etc... Lots of cities where cars like these can make perfect sense.

· · 1 year ago

@Anonymous,
"Not everywhere is Riverside. NYC, Boston, . . . "
True but I'm pretty sure that the per-capita fuel consumption for some of those is a whole lot more in Riverside, CA. In NYC (except Staten Island), it doesn't make much sense to even own a car and, if you do own one, you certainly don't want a minimalist 'city car' that you can't do much with when you do take it out. I think European 'city cars' are a result of to much overpopulation and too little invested in infrastructure construction. About all they are good at is parking in tiny spaces that weren't built large enough or trying to squeeze into free parking on a street that was originally designed for transportation, not storing people's stuff.
I'd rather go completely car-less with high density as New Yorkers do or get a real (yet energy sustainable) car that can actually carry things and build out an infrastructure (garages) to allow one to use alternatives when they aren't needed.
I think Europeans don't realize that most Americans don't consider 'city cars' to even be cars. Electric or not. Witness the disaster of Smart Car sales in the US.

· · 1 year ago

@Laurent:

Actually I'm quite surprized by how homogeneous the world has become (actually, I'm not surprized at all, but that's getting into another subject). I like electric cars on winding roads, that's why I want BIG BATTERIES so that I don't have to stop driving prematurely.

France it seems has other problems these days, namely more than excessive taxation, Hollande's threatening Nationalization of the World's Largest Steelmaker, and
Wealth Flight out of the country ( Capital Controls, anyone?). Methinks France would have been better off choosing Jean-Marie Le Pen or his daughter Marine. Distancing the country from the rest of the increasingly Banker Controlled countries of Europe can only mean long term good for France.

What's an English decent person doing defending France? After all, we all trace our ancestry from 11th century England, from France!

France has always made interesting automobiles, and now several significant EV models. I would hope PSA Peugeot-Citroen survives its increasing alliance with our General Motors. I would hate to see French uniqueness Die.

· Ray G (not verified) · 1 year ago

I think that the author, based in eurpoe, does not have enough experience with america to draw such a conclusion, and does not have any experience in driving a real EV, such as the RAV4, around the streets in america, where one would gain a genuine perspective on what driving an EV is like in america, and the needs one has in doing so.

· James Anderson Merritt (not verified) · 1 year ago

I have driven a Tesla Roadster for an extended period. Assuming that the Model-S is more comfortable than the Roadster and handles as nimbly as reviewers are saying it does, with greater autonomy, there is NO DOUBT IN MY MIND than an EV can be a family's single car. Maybe not every family's only vehicle, but enough of them in the city, suburbs, and rural areas to make them well worth producing and having. The performance -- when you put the hammer down -- is literally breathtaking. By the way: an EV mustang sounds just great to me. But even better would be an EV Mazda RX-8. Nikola Tesla's 3-phase AC motor, on which the Tesla automobiles' motors are based, is, after all, the original "rotary." And it has more "zoom-zoom" thrill than most car drivers have ever felt.

· Bret (not verified) · 1 year ago

@EV1

I was going to say the same thing to Anonymous, especially about urban dwellers taking mass transit vs. suburban folks who commute. While I do think city cars have their place, the majority of the American driving population needs real EVs/EREVs, that can handle freeway speeds and commuting distances.

I live in sunny San Clemente, CA. The Think and Gem golf carts are very popular here. But, they are limited to the beach and downtown areas. I couldn't even get 3.3 miles to work, since it's on a 50 MPH street. I don't think others realize how fast and far Americans drive, compared to people in other countries.

· Shelterdogg (not verified) · 1 year ago

As the new owner of a plug-in Prius, I'd say that the principal impediments are a) driving range; b) how long it takes to recharge; and c) the easy availability of charging stations. I could avoid gasoline altogether when commuting if I could recharge at work, but there are only a few charging stations downtown and they're always taken. And if it took 15 minutes to recharge instead of an hour, it would transform the process. But I'm just a novice.

· · 1 year ago

I own a Nissan Leaf and it is pretty much a city car but not in the sense that the author means. A lot of the driving that we do with the Leaf could easily be done with a Mitsubishi i-miev since it is one person travelling alone or maybe one adult driving with a teenager riding shotgun. But, we also have a six year old who needs to be in the back seat. I feel better having him in the back of a Leaf than in the back of an i-miev that doesn't crash as well. Mind you, I want an i-miev to putt around town in when the Leaf is being driven since I test drove one and liked it. Having an electric car that will meet the requirements of more local trips supersedes the desire to have something smaller though. If I were single I would prolly get the Mitsubishi since there is an attractive quality to having a little car to get around in. I'd rather be T-boned in the Leaf though.

· · 1 year ago

@Bret,
I'd bet that 100% of your neighbors who have golf carts also have an ICE vehicle. This is the beauty of having enough space to be sustainable, unlike Europe. They probably have enough space to park both their ICE and their golf cart so they can select the right tool for the right job.
Europe has gotten too overrun over the centuries and has not invested enough in their habitability infrastructure so nobody has enough space to do much. Therefore, they try to cram as much life into insufficient space as they can afford. This significantly restricts their options.
In the US, however, we have lots of space to live but, of course, we still don't always use it for the best purposes such as using large trucks (that are easy to park here) for simple commuting.

· grumpy (not verified) · 1 year ago

I have to agree that EVs are best as city cars. I have owned a Volt for about 8 months now and it is a great city car. My current average empg is pegged at 250. The contrast that always sticks with me is that if It could hold the equivalent charge to a 15 gallon tank of gas, it would (in theory), be sufficient to drive from California.to NYC and probably half way back across the country. The point is that there is an amazing amount of energy stored in a gallon gas and battery technology can't match that level of convenience for the average consumer.

· David Martin (not verified) · 1 year ago

' I think European 'city cars' are a result of to much overpopulation and too little invested in infrastructure construction. About all they are good at is parking in tiny spaces that weren't built large enough or trying to squeeze into free parking on a street that was originally designed for transportation, not storing people's stuff.'

Yeah, who needs Rome, Paris or Vienna when they could all look like Houston?

Probably the dumbest comment I have ever seen here, and that takes some doing.

· David Martin (not verified) · 1 year ago

I'm hopeful that VW will feel the need to compete with Smart on price, and if so the EUp should be a heck of a motor.
I can't see them screwing up the battery durability the way Nissan/Renault have, and you need a battery which lasts as long as the car to make the economics of EV's work.

· · 1 year ago

The physics is the same on both sides of the pound. To be safe in a car, on a long road, in a city or in on a freeway you need to have reasonable crumple zones to absorb the crash energy and do so on a sufficient length to limit the deceleration that you endure. Europe or America it doesn’t matter, it is the same physics and therefore when you factor out the economic differential people automatically buy the same safety they can afford and thus purchase the same type of car.

· · 1 year ago

@David Martin
Rome, Paris, Vienna, . . .
Great places for Americans to visit and see where there once was grandeur (for the rich) but, having spent a lot of time working in Europe. I sure hate living there. Way too cramped.
Houston isn't the greatest but I credit its awful climate for most of that. Its hard to compare east Texas with the Mediterranean climate.
@Grumpy,
I don't believe the Volt is what people are referring to as a "city car". I believe they are referring to very small cars such as the Smart and the Fiat 500 (3 meter (9 ft) length). One plus about them is that you can perpendicular park in a parallel space.

· · 1 year ago

Really Interesting article, But what is more interesting is as people may purchase/lease a City EV and figure out it can do more, like a longer commute, more frequent trips, less range anxeity and ultimately figure out normally your only traveling at most 25-30miles between desitnation points allowing plenty of room to travel. I drive our LEAF to the extent every day, 68-70mile RT commuter, Plenty of infrastructure along the way if i need to stop. And i usually come home and charge very shortly before we start our city run abouts all within $3-4 of electrons. CANT BEAT IT!

· · 1 year ago

@Justin H,
The Leaf is hardly a "City Car" like those described in the article. One can easily fit 5 people and a little 'stuff' in a Leaf. Few "City Cars" can even fit 4 small people without really squeezing in.

· TO Ed (not verified) · 1 year ago

Saying that Europe is crowded is only correct for the cities. The other 99% isn't that different than here. Drove 10,000 km over there recently. Countryside S of France reminded me of Ontario between London and Windsor. Locals in small communities rely on trains and planes for longer travel. Lots of pollution even in countryside. They desperately need electric vehicles. We are more similar than different. No surprise given how many Europeans live here. I love seeing any electric vehicle being produced. Good or not so good. I drive a smart now but my next vehicle will be a plug in.

· · 1 year ago

Ugh . . . Houston! Every time I've ever driven near that place, I've been consumed by traffic jams. As far as I can tell, there is no way to simply drive around the perimeter of that sprawlotropolis.

No exaggeration: it took me longer to move east to west through/around Houston than it did to travel from there to San Antonio (which appears beautifully picturesque, while whizzing by effortlessly along its efficiently-designed urban freeway stretch) some 200 miles away.

Many of these larger cities (Houston, Phoenix, LA) would do well to make massive investments in public transportation infrastructure, like light rail. Little EVs without tailpipe emissions are a marvelous substitute for big single-occupancy gas-hog SUVs. But fewer automobiles of any type is what's really needed in these places.

· Bret (not verified) · 1 year ago

@EV1

Yes, most people in San Clemente with Gems have ICE vehicles and the garages to store them in. I really wanted one for the cost and simplicity, but I can't even get across town in one. I usually walk from here to the beach and downtown anyway, so golf carts and city cars make no sense for me. What does make sense is a real EV/EREV, so I don't have to fire up my F-150 to drive 3 miles to work. My daughter got my commuter car and I don't want to buy another dino-burner. I will probably buy an EV in 2013.

· · 1 year ago

@Bret,
By the end of 2013 there will hopefully be some more good EV choices to choose from.
Of course, if you only drive 3 miles each way to work, you're not wasting too much gas no matter what you are driving. You're also in good bicycle/electric scooter range.

· · 1 year ago

It would be more accurate to say that electric cars are great for suburbia. In dense cities cars are often not necessary, and finding places to charge can be problematic for apartment and condominium dwellers. In suburban areas the distances driven are enough to derive real benefit from electric propulsion, while not too far for non-Tesla EVs, and it is generally easy to charge at home.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 1 year ago

This is AMERICA, Sir!

· Warren (not verified) · 1 year ago

Once suburbia is finally, and truly dead, we won't need cars...electric or otherwise.

Unfortunately, it appears we are prepared to take the world over the cliff of irreversible climate change to postpone having to live in an apartment and use mass transit.

· · 1 year ago

@Warren,
Or, rather than live like chickens, stacked up in a coop, laying eggs until we're too old, after which they're slaughtered, we can continue to improve our ways to harness energy in order to improve our standard of living.
One possible solution is to use the energy that hits our homes that 'waste' real estate to produce electricity to drive our cars so that we can spread out and be able to roam independently as the human race lived for its first millions of years.
Don't forget that vertically stacked high-density housing is a relatively new phenomena in human evolution. While it does offer some efficiencies, it is counter to the natural comfort of many people and has many negative side-affects.
Please don't assume there is only one solution to all problems and then try to force it upon everyone.
I support high-density housing and mass transit but also agree that there are other approaches as well.

· · 1 year ago

The LEAF has just taken over our family gas guzzlers. I live in the suburbs of Nashville and commute 30 miles round trip to work. We run to a mall about 3 miles away and eat run around in the afternoon with the family, go see friends, go play golf, go watch a movie. My truck just sits there parked unless I need to make a trash run or have a long trip. The other day I had the opportunity to drive a new FY13 Altima for a day, had to run to the gas station. I had to remember how to work the pump it was strange. Guys it all depends on your daily travel distance.

Battery problem – what battery problem? So a few people in Nevada extreme heat had some issues. People in the same area have done just fine. Overhyped!

Cold Weather – have you tried warming up your car with your phone app before you go out? It warms your LEAF up using the house electricity, nice and toasty when you get in. I charge my leaf outside, truck in garage. Guess what it works and then there is minimal affect on your range.

The car works!

· Anonymous (not verified) · 1 year ago

ex-EV1 driver,

"One possible solution is to use the energy that hits our homes that 'waste' real estate to produce electricity to drive our cars so that we can spread out and be able to roam independently as the human race lived for its first millions of years."

So, you think driving around in a vehicle that weighs at least ten times what you do, at speeds at least ten times faster than you can travel under your own power is "roam[ing] independently as the human race lived for its first millions of years." :-)

· · 1 year ago

Wow!
I didn't expect this would get into politics. My only point is my belief that sometimes next year, electric city cars (Spark EV & 500e) will outsell compact EVs (Leaf & Focus EV), in the US. I know it will happen for sure in Europe.

· Warren (not verified) · 1 year ago

Laurent,

If you want to call the nature of reality "politics", you can. But it doesn't change the laws of science.

All of life is vending machines for a code that says, "replicate me." We humans are the most successful replicators since the anaerobic organisms that blanketed the globe in poisonous oxygen, forcing themselves into the few tiny remaining places they could survive. We will do the same. We cannot override our prime directive. Even the ability to forecast the future with mathematical precision will not stop us. With luck, in fifty years, our computer models will be able to tell us with near perfect accuracy that we have destroyed ourselves. :-)

· · 1 year ago

@Anonymous,
Yes, we've gotten pretty efficient at harnessing energy sources to allow us to roam around freely and it has enabled our species to thrive in nearly every corner of the planet.
We started by harnessing the horse. Then learned to build boats and harnessed the wind to propel them. We also invented the wheel that made it more efficient. Further advancements allowed us to use the wind even better and we learned to harness falling water.
The last, wonderful energy source that that we harnessed for this task, petroleum, was revolutionarily better than previous schemes. Unfortunately, it is a finite resource with some undesirable emissions products. I guess our choices now are to go back to the drawing board and find a better solution or step back in mankind's progress to a previous state.
I chose the former, you're welcome to return to a simpler time if you'd like.

· · 1 year ago

@Laurent: "My only point is my belief that sometimes next year, electric city cars (Spark EV & 500e) will outsell compact EVs (Leaf & Focus EV), in the US"

I'll believe this when I see it.

I was cruising around the city of Syracuse yesterday in my Leaf. It is absolutely the best car I've ever driven in the city. Loads of torque, plenty up pep up to 35mph, and instant response (no waiting for an ICE to rev up). This almost makes driving in city traffic fun!

That said, like others have pointed out, Americans don't want to drive small cars in crowded cities. We do, however, seem to want to live in suburban communities 20-40 miles outside of cities, and drive back and forth every day. As it turns out, the Leaf is a perfect fit for this type of driving. I suspect it will outsell smaller EVs for a long time to come.

@Warren: 'All of life is vending machines for a code that says, "replicate me.'

I see you're a romantic type! ;)

· Warren (not verified) · 1 year ago

ex-EV1 driver,

Oops! That anonymous post was me. I love all this tech stuff as much...maybe more than you do. But I am not kidding myself that it is a solution to our problems. Read the posts on this physicist's blog. After that, if you still think you are going to ride off into some Buck Rogers future, all the best to ya! :-)

· Warren (not verified) · 1 year ago

The lack of an edit button is irritating.

http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/post-index/

· · 1 year ago

@Warren,
First of all, if you sign in, you'll get an edit button so you can adjust your posts.
Next: I think the big issue is sustainability.
I think there may be a disconnect between growth and improvement. IMHO, there is no sustainable growth rate if it doesn't have a ceiling. The growth of human population must stop at some point or it will destroy itself. Unfortunately, as the population gets too big, the quality of life will have to start to decline.
I think population growth is a different topic than improving our transportation to make it sustainable so I'll leave it for different discussions. I don't have enough energy to tackle too many problems and I'm in pretty deep with transportation now.
I'm pretty sure that we could sustain (and probably improve) our current population and lifestyle if we'd just work on improving a few technologies to make them sustainable. This does, of course, require changing our energy source to sustainable ones instead of the finite ones we're using today.
I believe that even today's admittedly hedonistic, self-serving suburban lifestyle could be sustained if we were to switch to renewable (primarily solar, wind, hydro, and bio-fuel). This will, of course require changes at both the generation and usage of energy.
EVs represent a viable way to use these varied energy sources to provide the flexible suburban lifestyle that so many in the world strive for.
While I'm very much interested in them, I'll leave the energy sources, like population growth, to different discussions where they are more on-topic.

· Warren (not verified) · 1 year ago

ex-EV1 driver,

I try to avoid "signing in". I already get far too many come-ons for products.

Again, please take the time to read this physicist's posts.

http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/post-index/

You will find that we are well past any population size, and energy use that is sustainable by any scientific measure. Not looking at the facts allows us to play with our high tech toys, while squandering our grandchildren's chances, with a clear conscience. It is a very reassuring delusion, but a delusion none the less.

· · 1 year ago

@Warren,
I enjoyed reading that link. I don't, however, agree that our planet doesn't have sufficient sustainable energy to maintain today's standard of living throughout the world.
I do agree that we'll have to use energy better and costs of goods will likely increase since sustainable energy is likely to be more expensive than that which can be dug up from the ground. This, will, of course reduce our access to as many luxury goods as we have today. For some, that may mean foregoing the luxury of a large home in the suburbs for their big-screen satellite TV, leased luxury gas guzzler, voracious wine budget, exploited illegal immigrant gardeners, home bottled water delivery, etc.
We will definitely have to prioritize more but I don't see the suburban home as being a definite loss.
I also understand your hesitance to 'sign in'. Plugin-cars doesn't hit you that way but, of course, there's nothing to prove they won't if someone else buys them. You won't, however, be able to edit though.

· Warren (not verified) · 1 year ago

ex-EV1 driver,

I really enjoy this guy's site, because he doesn't get bogged down in debating tiny details. He looks at the big picture. He asks, "Are we within an order of magnitude of this or that working?" If we're not within an order of magnitude, then we are just fooling ourselves. If you "don't agree'', that is fine. :-)

· · 1 year ago

@Warren,
What's wrong with him saying that "By the numbers, solar is a can-do resource, and wind has large-scale capability as well."
I figure that, and the links in it kind of jive with my understanding as well. I like "can do" :-)
We just need to go towards renewables and he agrees with me that solar and wind appear to be the most viable on a large scale.
We can argue what 'sustainable' means all day long but we certainly don't have to argue what it doesn't mean.
For example, any dependence on petroleum for transportation, whether in a Hummer or a Prius is not sustainable and never will be no matter how many MPG the next generation of Prius gets.
Using CFLs for light instead of incandescent is not sustainable if it doesn't eliminate our need for coal or natural gas to generate some of our electricity.
I, too, think his reasoning is pretty good overall.

· Warren (not verified) · 1 year ago

ex-EV1 driver,

I think we agree about the direction we need to go. I just think the level of change needs to be an order of magnitude greater, if we are to have any chance of surviving.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-10/u-s-intelligence-agencies-see-a...

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