Three Small EVs Could Have Car-Phobic Youth Buyers on Their Side

By · January 06, 2014

Young People Love the Fiat 500e

Future EV buyers in the Fiat 500e at Trumbull High School. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Writing for Sunday’s New York Times last week, I compared three small electric cars, the Fiat 500e, the Chevrolet Spark EV and the Smart Electric Drive. They all had virtues but I declared the Spark the first-place finisher “by an electron.”

The 500e is a designer’s dream, and as cute as a bug. The Smart ED is made for fun in the sun, pioneering a potentially significant market for electric convertibles (especially since so many EVs are sold in California). But as I reported in the Times article, my daughter Delia’s enthusiasm for the Spark EV was fascinating—she hardly ever notices cars. If I drove home in a supercharged Duesenberg she’d take it in stride. She loved, of all things, the body-color painted dashboard. And the compact size really hit home.

What Young Car Buyers Want

Delia’s a high school senior, and she’s been driving for only a few months. If we were going to get her a car, she said, this would be the one. That’s good news for Chevy’s marketing plan, because they’re aiming the affordable Spark—in all its forms—at young drivers. In general, this is a segment that is somewhat turned off to buying cars at all, so it makes sense to find niches they’ll opt into. The electric car just might push their buttons, and the $199 to $239 a month lease prices don't hurt, either.

I guess I could compare the Spark EV to the 1962 Chevy Nova convertible I drove in high school, though the Spark has a much better infotainment system and the Chevy II was a prodigious polluter. GM knew how to build youth-appeal cars then, but it lost its mojo in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The Chevy Spark EV

The Spark EV has young admirers, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The 500e, a rare beast on the east coast because of its California-only marketing plan, has a lot of potential appeal to young drivers, too. I took mine to a local high school as part of a show-and-tell on electric cars. The students swarmed over it, pronouncing it ultra-cool and an object of desire. “That’s what I’m talking about,” said one.

20-Something Buyers

The Smart ED, with its diminutive size and full-length sunroof/convertible top, is another potential youth car. Looking at forums, I get the sense that the EV version has sold to a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, who like the affordability as a starter electric. But Ken Kettenbeil, a Smart spokesman, said that buyers of the Smart (all kinds) are “defined by attitude and lifestyle rather than age and income.”

Expanding on this theme, a Zpryme survey a few months ago found that the age groups most likely to buy an EV in the next year are suburbanites in two age groups, 18-24 and 25-34. Daughter Delia fits into the first category.

The appeal of small cute electrics to younger buyers is important for a long-term vibrant future for EVs. In fact, it could be a critical factor in proving the federal government wrong in its prediction—via the U.S. Energy Information Administration Annual Energy Outlook report for 2014—that only 1 percent of total vehicle sales in the U.S. will be pure EVs in 2040, with another 1 percent for plug-in hybrids. That forecast seems completely pessimistic, especially considering California mandates that by 2040 will require 100 percent of passenger vehicles sold in the state to be either purely electric or hydrogen fuel cell. The groundwork for future mass appeal of EVs is being laid by the affordable youth-oriented electric cars available on the market today.


· · 4 years ago

100% of cars sold in California pure EV or fuel cell in 2040? More pie in the sky, lunatic politicians at work. These people just don't quit wasting money. It will work about as well as the last zero emissions mandate. Not happening. Nada. No way.

· · 4 years ago

@Michael - what if the technology improves so much that EV's are far more compelling than stinky gas burners?

I agree that legislators can only legislate that which is legislatable - for example, they can never legislate that pi = 4.0 even though it would make mathematics easier to understand.

· · 4 years ago

Michael, 2040 is a long way off, but here's the basic roadmap of how the California Air Resources Board (CARB) intends to get to the lofty goal of 100% Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV). For the next 12 model years, most auto manufacturers will be required to meet the following schedule to reach 16% ZEV's:

2012 ------------ 0.79%
2018 ------------ 2.00%
2019 ------------ 4.00%
2020 ------------ 6.00%
2021 ------------ 8.00%
2022 ----------- 10.00%
2023 ----------- 12.00%
2024 ----------- 14.00%
2025 ----------- 16.00%

It's doubtful that 16% in 2025 will survive the inevitable lawsuits and other shananagans that auto makers and oil companies will employee to try to stop / slow down / disrupt these efforts.

· · 4 years ago

I forgot to mention that the percentages above are based on vehicle credits, not actual cars. So, 16% of cars sold with 100 mile range will get 3 credits each, which means that the actual cars will be 16% divided by 3 = 5.34% of actual new cars sold in 2025.

· · 4 years ago

The SparkEV and 500e are compliance-only jokes, which they will remain until they're sold to all comers nationwide. The ongoing failure of California writers to accurately report this when addressing a national (or international) forum (like this one!) is an endless source of disappointment for EV enthusiasts outside the Golden State. My position remains that compliance cars are a worthless scam, advancing nothing, and EV buyers serious about promoting the industry should boycott/ignore them in favor of manufacturers genuinely interested in bringing real EVs to the national market (and it's just smarter shopping - who wants a car you have to dump if you get relocated to Kansas?). The SmartED may have its shortcomings (including its unfortunate name - does this make the gas-powered version a SmartCialis?), but at least I'll be able to buy one if I want it.

· · 4 years ago

Too bad Mitsubishi's i-MiEV couldn't be in the mix for this. They've been on hiatus while rethinking options/pricing, and coming back this spring a better value than ever, underpricing all of these cars (in California it'll be less than Yaris money if Mom & Dad can use the whole federal tax credit), and available nationwide. The i-MiEV is clearly more practical than the Fiat or Smart, and not a crappy compliance dodge like the Spark. And for the kids, it certainly has the mini/cute/ugly thing going for it (one writer characterized it as adorably hideous, "like a deformed puppy"). It'd be interesting to see what this featured demographic would think of the car if they ever learn it exists.

· · 4 years ago

I don't think the Spark EV is a joke and for the life of me I do not understand why GM does not want to sell this car world-wide. Have they surrendered the BEV mass-market to Nissan-Renault?

Mary Barra, this should be on top of your to-do list!

· · 4 years ago

The first time I saw the spark EV i thought, "wow, someone finally got the EV right" It is unfortunately self evident that GM is still the GM that crushed up the EV1s.

· · 4 years ago

A guy in my neighborhood picked up the 500e. That is definitely a snazzy little EV. He got the $199/month lease.

· · 4 years ago

I'm like you guys yes I hate compliance cars. But now for me its funny. I think electric cars are here to stay, the tipping point has happened. The companies on board will sell lots of cars - the ones making compliance cars will play catch up. The spark would be a great success I'm sure of that but GM must be making no money and have put their money into the Volt , a great car but not a completely electric car and former CEO has said SHOULD HAVE BEEN A TRUCK.

· · 4 years ago


That would be great, but it's not going happen. There is no Moore's Law for chemical batteries going on, just like there is no Moore's Law going on for IC engines. They have been in development too long. Even for microprocessors, Moore's Law came to an end a few years back.

· · 4 years ago


Thanks for the NYTIMES article and this follow up one.
Both are great and up to your usual high standards.

I loved the actual newspaper article with the old fashioned Sunday times as it was on front page, the cool colors grabbed your attention! I could see wanting to buy any of the three city cars you nicely summarized for us.

One Suggestion/ Comment:
It is so OBVIOUS to you and most of the readers of this blog how CHEAP it is to operate an EV especially with reduced night time charging rates. However, the NYTIMES audience likely does not know about this. I know it is tedious but maybe a sentence or two on annual savings of LEAF SPARK VOLT vs a 33 mpg car and a link to calculator would convince those on the fence to enjoy electronic propulsion!

· · 4 years ago

@Michael - I did not invoke "Moore's Law" in the form of a doubling of capability every 2 years or so. The general idea does apply to battery research, however, because there are improvements and research always going on. The doubling rate is not 2 years for batteries.

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